Producers of rolled steel and car manufacturers alike are casting a wary eye towards Japan. There, Toray Industries has developed technology, that, for the first time, allows carbon fiber to be used for mass produced auto bodies. According to The Nikkei [sub], Toray will start supplying Toyota and Fuji Heavy with carbon fiber for car bodies later this year.
Carbon fiber has one third of the weight of steel. Newton told us long ago, that reduced heft is the key to improved fuel efficiency. There used to be one problem: Carbon fiber was outrageously expensive, it did cost about 20 times the price of steel. Toray’s technology narrows the delta to about five times – as a start.
After a severe plunge, the price of steel is on the rise again. If more carbon fiber is used, the cost will come down, and the gap will narrow.
Still, at 5 times the cost, carbon fiber remains a luxury item. Toyota will use carbon fiber for the hood and roof of the Lexus LFA, a luxury sports car that will finally go in series production in December. Fuji Heavy will offer roofs made from carbon fiber as an optional item for its standard-class sports car. Not quite “mass production.” Nevertheless, it’s a start.
Rolled steel for cars is an important business for steelmakers. It also has a feature car makers like: built-in obsolescence, called rust. Rust inhibitors have prolonged the life of cars, and stopped them from already rusting in the catalogue. However, eventually, rust will get to a steel body, and it will conveniently fall apart. A body made from carbon fiber theoretically can live forever. Whether car makers want to live with that idea is a totally different question.