Carbon fiber apparently has become the new ``black'' for auto designers.
The composite is showing up on a spectrum of concept cars and prototypes at auto shows, both on predictable vehicles - high-end ``super'' sports cars - and the unexpected, including a roadster concept aimed at selling for less than $20,000.
Whether any of the dream cars actually make it into production with the composite still on board is hard to predict, but the number of vehicles rolling out show an increasing interest in the material.
``They're all over us in terms of looking at what can be done with carbon fiber,'' Steve McKenzie, president of Meridian Automotive Systems' exterior composites group, said Jan. 8 at an Automotive Composites Alliance event for the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
Resin suppliers, composites experts, suppliers, universities and automakers themselves are researching ways to make carbon fiber a more economical alternative.
The attraction is easy to understand, said David White, chairman of the ACA executive committee and vice president of sales and marketing for Dearborn, Mich.-based Meridian. In addition, the high strength and low weight of the material make it possible to fine-tune structural systems.
``There's some prestige,'' he said. ``People are willing to pay for performance and prestige.''
Prestige comes into play on two major concept cars that debuted at the Detroit show. The Auburn Hills, Mich.-based Chrysler division of DaimlerChrysler AG stormed onto the stage with the ME Four-Twelve sports car, which would sell for well in excess of $100,000 if produced. The car goes from zero to 60 mph in 2.9 seconds.
``We wanted this to be as rigid and as light as possible,'' said Wolfgang Bernhard, chief operating officer. ``We used a multitude of lightweight materials.''
Carbon fiber and aluminum make up the Four-Twelve's body, while carbon fiber is used as the frame for the seat structure.
Chrysler was looking at a cheaper prospect with the Dodge Slingshot concept. Based on DaimlerChrysler's European-made Smart roadster, which uses thermoplastic and standard composites for its body, the Slingshot also would have a plastic exterior, but the dream is to take it to carbon fiber.
In the case of the Slingshot, carbon fiber would lend its light weight to a vehicle measuring in at 1,800 pounds that squeezes out 45 miles per gallon in fuel usage. Any possible future vehicle probably would not stick with the high-cost, high-technology composite, since the automaker wants to sell it for less than $20,000.
Price remains a problem for carbon fiber's wide acceptance.
Raw material prices are dropping, but as yet there is no real way to mold carbon fiber in high enough volumes to bring overall piece prices down, White said.
``Our [research and development] guys are working on it quite a bit, but we're still looking at something that's $15 a pound, when the market is at $5 per pound,'' he said.
So while Ford Motor Co. may have found a place for carbon fiber in the seat structures of the high-end Shelby Cobra concept vehicle, and while it is being used in limited editions of General Motors Corp.'s Corvette and the Dodge Viper, it will take time for the material to trickle down to other vehicles. But it is moving.
``What we are seeing is a continual, gradual increase in carbon-fiber use,'' Meridian's McKenzie said. ``They're placing it strategically where it's needed.''