Fort Wayne, Ind. — General Motors Co.'s new carbon fiber pickup box for the GMC Sierra is the tip of the iceberg for what the automaker could do with the lightweight material.
While automakers have used carbon fiber for supercars and sparingly in other vehicles, including the Chevrolet Corvette, future use cases from GM are expected to be more apparent and accessible for everyday vehicle buyers.
The most logical expansion for the GMC-branded CarbonPro box is for the boxes of the Sierra's sibling, the Chevrolet Silverado 1500, as well as GM's next-generation midsize and heavy-duty pickups. The possibilities grow from there, though they're largely dependent on cost.
"It's a structural material," said Mark Voss, engineering group manager for Detroit-based GM's pickup boxes. "Logically, you could deduce that if we make it out of steel, we could make it out of carbon."
Voss, who declined to comment on any potential future use cases, said it's a matter of "wherever it makes business sense, wherever it makes consumer sense."
GM determined the pickup box made the most sense as a way to create scale and bring the cost down — a similar strategy to Ford Motor Co.'s decision to switch to aluminum bodies for its pickups and SUVs.
Starting with a carbon fiber box on high-end Denali and AT4 models of the 2019 GMC Sierra — available beginning early summer — also allowed GM and its supplier partner, Japan-based Teijin Ltd.'s Continental Structural Plastics, to do less testing to get to market than with an occupant compartment such as the cab.
Voss, who previously led carbon fiber development for Corvettes, said GM still had to do significantly more development, testing and validation for the carbon fiber box than it would have with a typical steel bed.
"Steel boxes have been around for 100 years; you don't have to do that level of developmental work on a steel box," he said, adding that GM has been working for eight years on the carbon fiber box. "Once you do the production design, you validate it [by the] normal process."
Part of that process unexpectedly created a marketing campaign that poked holes at Ford's use of aluminum in its pickup beds.
While testing the durability of the carbon fiber box, GM benchmarked it against other pickups, including its own trucks and the F-150, by throwing objects such as sledgehammers and cinder blocks onto the bed.
While the objects barely impacted the carbon fiber, if at all, engineers recorded videos of some objects piercing Ford's aluminum bed.
Those videos led to a 2016 marketing campaign for the current-generation Chevrolet Silverado, which had less damage than the aluminum bed.
"That whole scenario was based off the CarbonPro," Voss said. "At the time we couldn't set that third truck in the commercial showing the CarbonPro."
The carbon fiber box is being produced at a Continental Structural Plastics facility outside Fort Wayne, near where GM produces the Sierra and Silverado 1500 models.
The process includes presses and other equipment specifically developed for carbon fiber, including a massive, GM-owned 3,600-ton press that makes the main components of the box, including the bed and sides.
GM hasn't announced pricing for the CarbonPro box.