Carbon fiber has been used in everything from high-end bicycles to spacecraft. The strong and lightweight material remains scarce in the car business because it is considered prohibitively expensive.
Auto engineers are penny pinchers, keeping a tight lid on expenses to protect the industry’s relatively slim margins. The average car now costs around $32,000, but a wave of stiffer regulatory requirements and consumer demands for better technology is pressuring vehicle sellers to keep jacking up prices.
Turning to carbon fiber as a way to meet rising fuel-economy standards is tricky. The material is three-to-four times more costly than high-strength steel and takes much longer to make and form into parts.
Carbon fiber is made from long, thin strands of carbon atoms that can be twisted together to form a fabric, then heated and formed. Major suppliers include Japan’s Toray Industries Inc. and Stamford, Conn.-based Hexcel Corp.
The auto industry is starting to see some relief when it comes to the exotic material. The cost of carbon fiber has fallen about 25% over the past five years, to about $7 a pound for a commonly used form of the material, according to Texas-based materials consultant Lucintel.
The global market for carbon fiber in cars is expected to grow 9% annually to $2 billion through 2025, according to Lucintel.
Carbon fiber has traveled a long road from when it first showed up on vehicles.
British sports-car maker McLaren pioneered use of carbon fiber in the auto sector with Formula One race cars in the early 1980s. The material is used today in many high-end sports cars and has found its way into some electric vehicles. Certain low-volume versions of Toyota Motor Corp.’s Prius hybrid use a carbon-fiber rear hatch door, shaving about 8 pounds.
A recent high-profile example is BMW ’s EV line, including the i3 hatchback and i8 sports car, which have sold nearly 35,000 vehicles since 2014. The German auto maker jointly invested more than $300 million in a carbon-fiber plant in eastern Washington to supply its EV line, along with partner SGL Group of Germany, a major carbon fiber supplier. BMW recently sold its minority stake in the venture to SGL.
Other recent partnerships suggest auto makers are exploring broader carbon fiber use. In March, Ford Motor Co. and auto supplier Magna International Inc. said they created a prototype carbon-fiber portion of a vehicle frame, which reduced the mass by 34% compared with a steel equivalent.
The association with exotic sports cars and fighter jets also gives the material marketing cachet. Some auto makers have touted “carbon” editions that include few if any bits of the high-end plastic, including a GMC Sierra pickup in 2015, which featured black paint and graphics to mimic the real thing.