10 years ago, hardly anybody owned a cellphone, and even fewer people owned a computer tablet. Today both gadgets have become nearly indispensable in the everyday life of millions of Americans, and so too could carbon fiber. A study by Lux Research says that by 2025, the market for vehicles built from carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP) could be massive.
Lux already predicts that its early estimate for the carbon fiber market has been doubled to $6 billion. Five years after that, and CFRP parts could become the cornerstone of many, and perhaps even most auto manufacturers. BMW has already invested $200 million into carbon fiber production at a factory in Washington State, and Ford has recently displayed its carbon fiber GT supercar as forerunner to future carbon fiber products. Even Elon Musk is looking into carbon fiber to bring down the high weight of his electric vehicles, as the BMW i3 weighs about half what a fully-loaded Model S.
Standing in the way of carbon fiber adoption though are costs, with a single kilogram of the stuff costing between $20 and $28 per kilogram. Compare that to steel, which costs as little as $1 per kilogram for vehicle construction, and there’s a huge disconnect between what’s ideal, and what’s affordable. In other words, don’t expect to be driving around an entirely carbon fiber car by 2025. Instead, I expect many body panels to be made from CFRP parts, but the overall chassis to remain made of steel, which may not be as light but can hardly be beat for malleability and strength in car construction. As Model S owners are finding out, aluminum repairs can be costly.
But one day it could be possible that we just grow carbon fiber on trees, and it becomes every bit as commonplace as cell phones. How will that alter the future of automotive design?