5 Innovations for Lighter, Smarter Auto Parts

Carbon Fiber

Carbon fiber is certainly no newcomer to the automotive scene. Bred from the aerospace industry, then used in auto-racing to make vehicles lighter on the track, this technology migrated its way to specialty uses on the performance aftermarket.

Among the performance "tuner" crowd, it's a badge of status to bolt on carbon fiber hoods, spoilers and even body panels with the pieces unpainted and carbon weave visible.

In a nutshell, carbon fiber consists of strands of carbon atoms formed into fibers that are then woven into an easy-to-mold cloth. When sheets are soaked in a special resin, applied to a mold or form and allowed to cure, the resulting product can be as strong as steel, but at half the weight (and 30 percent lighter than aluminum). It works very similarly to the way fiberglass does, but yields much higher strength.

So why don't we already see carbon fiber everywhere? Cost. The lengthy and complex cycle of making carbon fiber parts makes them many times more expensive to produce than similar ones made of steel or even lightweight metals that are pricier than steel.

For a long time, the fuel savings that car buyers would enjoy as a result of lighter carbon fiber parts would not financially justify the added expense from not using steel.

A number of car manufacturers, notably Lexus and BMW, are working to change that with intensive research into developing ways to reduce the cost of producing carbon fiber for vehicles. Lexus, for instance, has developed a remarkable three-dimensional, robotic loom capable of weaving not only flat sheets of carbon fiber, but also curved pieces already shaped to the contours of particular body parts.