BMW and Audi want to cut carbon-fiber production costs by up to 90 percent within six years—and they're already halfway there.
The two automakers, bolstered by funding from the German government and working with 86 other partners including Airbus and ZF, are part of a $102-million research consortium whose goal it is to make still-exotic carbon fiber more viable for mainstream manufacturing.
By 2020, the group, dubbed MAI Carbon, hopes Germany will be the center of carbon-fiber research and development; the group also wants to drive down the material's cost so that automakers and other industries can substitute traditionally metal parts for it. Currently, raw carbon fiber costs about $20 per kilogram (2.2 pounds) compared to less than $1 for steel.
"We've certainly reached a halfway point on our cost-cutting target for suitable carbon-fiber parts," Klaus Drechsler, the project's leader, . "We'll see a lot more carbon fiber use in the next generation of cars."
BMW, one of the only automakers to use carbon-fiber bodies in relatively mass-produced vehicles—the and electric cars—wants material prices to sink so it can start turning a profit off of its i-branded cars. The automaker is doubling down on carbon-fiber manufacturing and is at its Washington state plant to 9000 tons per year. In theory, the move would expand BMW's use of the material to more of its higher-volume cars. Audi, on the other hand, hasn't shown as much interest in carbon fiber, although its parent company Volkswagen has relied on the stuff for the ultrasleek diesel hybrid sold in Europe. That said, no company is immune to ever-tightening fuel-economy regulations, so Audi likely is keeping the material in mind for future production cars.
We will continue to monitor developments in carbon-fiber research, but for now, carbon-fiber manufacturing essentially operates like an artisan bread bakery: the material has to be individually layered, molded, and baked in an autoclave. Until we see McDonald's-level efficiency and speed, or at least significant automation permeate the process, making stuff out of carbon fiber is going to remain expensive. That said, we're excited to see an effort to reduce the parts' cost; as Colin Chapman probably once said, "Simplify, then add lightness—and a s#@tload of light, stiff pieces made from a formable fibery substance."