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Will New Mileage Rules Force Shift from Steel to Carbon Fiber?

Survey says industry leaders expect more changes in the basic automotive building blocks.

by on Aug.02, 2011

Lamborghini is making "heavy" use of lightweight carbon fiber for the new Aventador super car.

With only minor exception, today’s cars are made out of the same building blocks as Henry Ford’s Model T.  Sure, the wooden floor boards are gone and there’s a lot more plastic – with a bit of aluminum and magnesium thrown in — but today’s cars continue to rely on steel, glass and rubber for the majority of their mass.  And mass is going to be one of the biggest enemies as the industry aims to meet the new federal fuel economy standards.

Getting to 54.5 mpg will require major changes in every aspect of automotive design, industry leaders stress, with a heavy emphasis on what’s under the hood.  But a new study finds that the mileage mandates will likely trigger a material revolution, as well.

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“Clearly CAFE regulations have confronted the industry, but they’ve also driven focus around technology needs, material demands and cost issues,” said David Glasscock, global automotive technology director for DuPont Automotive, which commissioned the new study.

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Mini Exploring Carbon Fiber Applications with Rocketman Concept

Show car makes extensive use of weight-saving composites.

by on Mar.03, 2011

The Mini Rocketman concept uses a strong, super-light carbon fiber spaceframe.

Mini’s newest concept vehicle could help it rocket into the future by showing the brand the potential for ultra-lightweight carbon fiber.

The Mini Rocketman concept vehicle, unveiled at the 2011 Geneva Motor Show is nearly the smallest vehicle the British maker has ever come up with, just inches longer than the original Mini crafted by Sir Alex Issigonis a half century ago.  But it’s also a very different and much more modern vehicle, company officials stressed.

There is the high-tech infotainment system that has become the requisite on today’s show cars.  But perhaps more significantly, the Mini Rocketman uses a carbon spaceframe to keep the vehicle small, light and roomy.

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“It captures the spirit of originality” pioneered by Sir Alex, proclaimed Ian Robertson, the BMW AG Board Member who also supervises Mini sales and marketing, during the British marque’s Geneva news conference. (For more on the Mini Rocketman itself, Click Here.)

In a subsequent interview with TheDetroitBureau.com, Robertson emphasized the interest of both Mini and BMW in the use of carbon fiber.  The German parent company has, in fact, has “invested heavily” in recent years to improve the technology and expand its production.

The Lamborghini Aventador also goes with carbon fiber for its underlying monocoque.

The material “has a number of elements” that are attractive, including its tremendous strength – many times greater than steel, pound-for-pound – and light weight.  That’s particularly attractive for Mini, a brand that has put an emphasis on sustainability.

That said, Robertson cautioned that carbon fiber is still extremely expensive to produce, which may make it difficult to introduce in the relatively mainstream price segments where Mini competes.

Indeed, today, carbon fiber is largely limited to some of the most expensive products on the road, such as the all-new, $350,000 Lamborghini Aventador, which also was introduced at the 2011 Geneva Motor Show (Find out more – Click Here.) Lamborghini CEO Stephan Winklemann told TheDetroitBureau.com that cost considerations likely limit the use of carbon fiber on other Lamborghini products.

But the spate of research underway has some experts betting that carbon fiber can move down-market in the coming years.  Toyota, for example, has been exploring ways to use the company’s historical ties to the textile industry to “weave” carbon fiber, instead of using traditional hand-production processes.  And BMW is also making strides towards mass production.

What could drive demand for the material is the industry’s move into electrification.  Vehicles like the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt carry 100s of pounds of lithium-ion batteries onboard, and carbon fiber, said BMW’s Robertson, may be needed “as a trade-off to offset heavy batteries. Carbon fiber,” he concluded, “has a significant role to play in the development of motor vehicles in the future.”