Commentary

Will carbon fiber ever be a mainstream automotive material? “Yes, just wait 10 years,” is the usual response.

Carbon fiber’s engineering benefits are proven every day in aerospace, where it is used to build military jets and a growing number of commercial airliners.

Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner is 50% carbon-fiber. Its predecessor is just 12%.

The material also is used in all types of racing and high-end sports equipment.

Problem is, in automotive, we’ve been hearing the “just wait” mantra for more than 30 years.

Ford showed off a prototype carbon-fiber-intensive LTD passenger car in 1977 that was a whopping 1,250 lbs. (567 kg) lighter than the auto maker’s planned ’79 models.

Since then, dozens – if not hundreds – of carbon-fiber prototypes and concept cars boasting light weight and incredible fuel economy have been displayed by global auto makers.

Besides carbon-fiber construction, high-mileage concept cars of yesteryear boasted small power-dense engines featuring gasoline direct injection or hybrid-electric powertrains.

Well, here we are in the ’10 model year, and a stunning number of technologies that were considered “exotic” 10 or 20 years ago are in mainstream production.

But if you want to buy a production, carbon-fiber-intensive car, you have to be the Sultan of Brunei.

Kalyan Sehanobish, a senior scientist at Dow Chemical, listed a few examples during a presentation at the recent Automotive Composites Conference and Exhibition. They were mostly Mercedes, Ferrari and Lamborghini models in the $500,000 price range.

One of the most affordable vehicles, equipped with a major carbon-fiber part, is the $100,000 ZR1 Corvette. The hood on the ZR1 is a gorgeous piece of engineering. I would hang it over our fireplace if my wife would let me.

But as an example of 30 years’ effort making carbon fiber affordable for automotive use, it’s not impressive.

The reason is simple. With aerospace and racing willing to pay exorbitant prices for carbon fiber, there is little incentive for part fabricators to make huge investments in capacity and faster processing methods so they can make less-expensive, lower-margin parts.

Yet, Sehanobish points to European carbon-dioxide emissions standards that could limit vehicle fleets to a mere 70 g/km by 2025 (equivalent to about 80 mpg). He says it might be impossible to reach such targets without carbon fiber.

The lightweight composite eventually could become a mainstream automotive material, but it would require strong partnerships between producers, part fabricators and auto makers, Sehanobish says.

Dow is a giant materials company with some interesting ideas on how to realize this vision. Considering Ford CEO Alan Mulally is an engineer and former head of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, Ford is an ideal OEM partner for Dow in such an effort.

If anyone can make an informed decision about the viability of carbon fiber in future vehicles, Mulally can.

Ford needs to mount an intensive campaign with Dow and other key auto suppliers to figure out, once and for all, if carbon fiber is a legitimate material for high-volume vehicles.

The auto industry can’t waste yet another 10 years wondering what to do with the stuff.

dwinter@wardsauto.com