Tony Norton, Senior Director, Global Automotive at Altair Engineering

This week, my colleague Giuseppe Resta has some thoughts spurred by the unveiling of two exciting vehicles scheduled for 2013 production:

The Frankfurt Auto Show saw BMW unveil its new “i” brand of electric vehicles. While both the radical design language and impressive powertrain specifications were eye catching, the fact that these models will represent the first high volume vehicles built with of a carbon fiber (CFRP) body-in-white (BIW) – or body-in-black, if you will – stands out. Is this the dawning of a new era that will cause steel-based auto design to rust away?

With consumer pressure due to increasing fuel costs, in addition to government mandates (such as the US CAFE regulations), automakers are looking for opportunities to increase vehicle efficiency more than they have ever done before, but structural composites adoption is slow on mainstream production vehicles. Despite CFRP being the new standard for airplane design, there are many reasons I feel we should not expect to see it transfer to automotive in the near future:

• Adopting an entirely new material base for large-scale productions poses considerable risk to OEMs.
• Composites manufacturing costs compared to metals. As a result, CFRP is best suited for low volume luxury/exotic vehicles.
• OEMs are heavily invested in metal stamping and manufacturing tooling. A shift to new carbon fiber technologies would be expensive.
• With few CFRP internal experts, traditional “metal engineers” dominate the automotive industry and will continue to design within this comfort zone.
• The CFRP supplier base, while increasing in size, remains limited. BMW’s decision to rely exclusively on SGL for their carbon fiber supply is not a move all purchasing departments would embrace.
Crash and safety requirements still impose barriers to carbon technology development, where its reliability and safety are largely untested.
• Further down the line, CFRP based products must address repair concerns, including the certification of body shops in addition to recycling policies.
• At the moment, composite suppliers lack a cohesive industry voice, and without which, it will be hard to achieve large scale implementation.

Clearly the risk associated with the adoption of a radical new technology is the overriding theme. To reference Moore, if BMW (along with the supercar manufacturers) are the visionary early adopters, then composites still need to “cross the chasm” to reach the pragmatists of the early majority at other OEMs. In the mean time vehicle, system and component optimization and lower risk material substitution (advanced aluminums or high strength steels) is keeping that “chasm” fairly wide for the time being.

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