By on June 9, 2006

toilet20.jpgSitting behind the wheel of a Maserati GranSport GT, cruising along at maybe 50mph (the speedo was busted). I’m waiting for one of the lights ahead to switch from green to red. I’m supposed to turn into the lane next to whichever light remains green, then back into the center lane before coming to a stop. The right light turns red. I jink left, feeding the wheel from my right hand to my left, keeping both arms positioned at nine and three. When I re-grab the wheel with my left hand, I encounter a harder-than-steel carbon fiber steering wheel. I jam my middle finger but good. Man, I hate that stuff.

Ever since the super leggere McLaren F1 debuted, pistonheads have regarded carbon fiber as the ne plus ultra material for high-end whips. The triple-scientifically complex baked resin is both lighter (faster!) and stronger (survive!) than steel. Porsche’s Carrera GT was the first car to boast a carbon fiber monocoque chassis, which is way stiffer than two coques and the F1 way of things. Of course this totally rad material has an equally outrageous price tag; the Carrera GT sold for $440k. Alternatively, you can retro-fit your 997 cabin with carbon fiber (steering wheel, transmission tunnel, doors, pull handles, cupholders, door sills, shift knob and e-brake) for around $6500. An aftermarket E36 M3 carbon fiber hood will set you back a mere $1050.

Pricey yes, but should you pull an Erikson and smash into something at 200mph, at least you’re safer with carbon fiber than steel, right? Er, no. Top Gear fans will recall that The Stig crashed an 800hp+ Koenigsegg CCX’s carbon fiber nose into some old tires. As Jezza noted, the Koenigsegg’s front was shattered, like glass. Translation: carbon fiber withstands one [massive] impact and… that’s it. If Mr. Erikson’s Enzo had struck another solid object after shearing in two on a telephone poll, he couldn’t have blamed the crash on Detrich, or anyone else.

At the moment, exotic carbon fiber monocoques simply mean dead rich guys. However, like variable-valve timing and dual clutches, carbon fiber could easily start trickling down. Reference the Maserati Coupe and Porsche Carrera, carbon fiber has already invaded sports car cabins. Will manufacturers’ ongoing struggle to raise their models’ mileage to meet federal CAFE standards lead to the mass production of carbon fiber parts, including safety-critical components like the chassis and door panels? The scary thing is that NHTSA crash ratings are based on single-strike events. Carbon could outperform steel in federal tests, and kill you dead on the road.

Carbon fiber interiors aren’t so clever either. Why would anyone want anything harder than steel so close to their skull? The switch from metal dashboards to soft, spongy ones was a major automotive safety innovation. I discovered the hard way why carbon fiber is bad. And that was only a finger. Imagine an unbelted noggin. Sure, I know: the entire dash isn’t covered in the stuff, just the steering wheel, the gear knob, the center console, a strip over the glove box and the door inserts. But even if you avoid making high-tech head-on contact, how are you going to defend yourself against a T-boning Ford Excursion pushing those carbon fiber door inserts straight through your kidney?

Meanwhile, aesthetically, it’s a nightmare. The otherwise perfect interior of the Maserati Quattroporte Sport GT has extra helpings of baked plastic all over the joint, and it looks silly. In fact, when my companion and I climbed out of the four-door and into a two-door GT, we were much more impressed by the leather dash (and could have used some alone time when we clocked the leather headliner…). Anyhow, why would any self-respecting millionaire want a car with an interior swathed in the same crap as the kid’s CRX down the street? Even Jeep’s Liberty has fake carbon fiber all over the place. Talk about post-modern irony: low-tech plastic designed to look like high-tech plastic developed to save weight in race cars in an SUV? They might as well bring back the Landau roof.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for automotive innovation. I generally slap my forehead whenever the “cars are too hard to work on these days” conversation starts. I want smarter computers and super lightweight stuff helping me go faster, and then faster again. But I don’t want to look at it. Carbon fiber dashes are one step removed from plastering interiors with circuit boards. Obviously, engineers are proud of this miracle material and they want the whole world to know it. As it turns out, sodium-filled exhaust valves are also something of a techno breakthrough. Why not cover a car’s interior with salt? Manufacturers should continue surrounding us in steel cages, while cabin designers should carry on stealing their interiors from Audi.

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8 Comments on “Carbon Fiber: So Good It Hurts...”

  • avatar

    but it’s very shiny, jonny! d’oh!

  • avatar

    The author hasn’t done any research. Carbon fiber is much much much stiffer than steel, and not just per weight. A mclaren F1’s chassis is a monocoque, and is the stiffest chassis on any road car. Have you ever seen an F1 crash? The survival cell isn’t even bent, and they crash at very high speeds. It looks silly, I agree, but it is the best matierial to make a car out of, bar the cost and production time. Ask any automotive engineer.

  • avatar

    I think the point he is trying to make, and it is a good one, that carbon fiber, for general transportation automobiles (the kind most of us drive) is a joke.

    Leaving aside the carbon fiber trim pieces (and the fake carbon fiber trim pieces, which are just as function, albeit less expensive), in terms of daily drivability, carbon fiber offers little advantages to the street car owner.

    Steel has toughness that can withstand impacts and bounce back. Minor dents can be pounded out (sometimes without repainting, those dent doctor places actually work).

    Granted, carbon fiber is stronger and lighter weight, but it also is staggeringly expensive. As a practical material for an affordable mass-production street car, it leaves a lot to be desired.

    Just because something works well in a race car does not make it suitable for a street car. In fact, most racing gear is best left on race cars. The idea that racing technology trickles down to street cars is largely a marketing gimmick. What works on the track is often disasterous on the street.

    (Perhaps if race cars had to go 150,000 miles between teardowns, some of the technology might be applicable to a street car).

    The main point of the article was not that carbon fiber sucks, only that as TRIM material for the interior of a car, it is ludicrous. But the same could be said of “brushed aluminum” trim, which is often, in reality, plastic.

    I ran into one doofus who was trying to remove all the “fake wood” trim from his BMW X5 to replace it with aftermarket plastic fake brushed aluminum trim (they also make a fake carbon fiber kit as well).

    Of course, the joke is on him. The “fake wood” in the BMW is, of course, the real deal, not some plastic laminate. But yet he dropped over a grand taking it out and replacing it with…plastic faked up to look like aluminum.

    Go Figure.

  • avatar

    Translation: carbon fiber withstands one [massive] impact and… that’s it.

    This conclusion does not follow from the previous sentence and is not based on any scientific or engineering knowledge.

    but it also is staggeringly expensive

    Carbon fiber is just graphite and resin. The raw material cost is less than $8 a pound, which, while a single-digit multiple of the cost of steel, is hardly staggering. Much of the expense is in crafting the fiber sheets into the shape of a vehicle chassis, because they’re only strong on two axes (and depending on the particular fiber, only in tension) and therefore don’t lend themselves to mass production metalworking techniques. The McLaren F1’s chassis actually required baking in a massive kiln, though I’m unaware if this is still the norm.

    Insofar as you suggest that the main point of the article is that carbon fiber “sucks,” the article is wrong.

  • avatar

    Carbon fiber reinforced plastic is not harder than steel. You can easily scratch it up with any steel knife.

  • avatar

    @Serious and KnightRT,

    Absolutely correct. And yes, KnightRT, the chassis must be autoclaved in order to cure the resin. For some information on the subject look at the ATR group in Italy who makes most of the F1 chassis tubs, as well as the Veyron’s, Ferrari Enzo and the aforementioned Carrera GT.

    CRP (Carbon Reinforced Plastic) is by far the optimal material currently for the structural elements of a vehicle’s chassis. It’s only real problem is expense and not necessarily from a materials standpoint but mass production.

    It comes down to “what’s your life worth?”

  • avatar

    Only months late to the game…well, whaddaya expect from a newbie?

    In terms of problems: there’s also some concerns about the toxicity of CRP as well, something not discussed by the original article or by the comments. As the author pointed out; CRP when it does fail goes out in a big way. How small this big way is unclear, but looking at crash footage of notable accidents where CRP was present (as with the big crash Robert Kubica had at the Canadian GP in 2007), I have to wonder what sort of CF particulates were tossed into the environment in the resultant dust cloud that followed the initial impact.

    There have been reports that under a microscope, a number of carbon nanotubes look a lot like asbestos fibers. But how dangerous this actually is is still unclear, because not enough research has been done as to how long these carbon fibers actually will exist in an environment like a human body. But considering how CF advocates proclaim the benefits of CRP longevity elsewhere, is it really too much to assume that such inhaled dust cloud fibers will stay in the body for a long, LONG time…just like asbestos?

    Maybe I’m just paranoid, but I think I’d rather stay upwind of said dust cloud if I had the choice. Problem is, in an accident there isn’t such a choice.

  • avatar

    I have to admit, reading the title of this article “The Truth About Cars” and then reading the article made me laugh. Fact is, this article is not based on research, or even good observation! There are a few points in particular I feel compelled to correct.

    First, the Porsche Carrera was not the first car to have a carbon fiber monocoque, in fact, when this article was written it was by far the most recent. The first car to have a carbon fiber monocoque I believe was the McLaren F1. There was also the Ferrari F50 and the Bugatti EB110. All three from the 90’s, long before the Carrera was built.

    Second, you are MUCH safer in a car made of carbon fiber than you would be in a car made of steel. Theres the obvious fact that carbon fiber is lighter than steel, thus meaning it has less momentum. Then theres tha fact that carbon fiber is just plain stronger and more rigid than steel. Have you ever seen a Formula 1 crash? fairly often the driver even walks away! They are (usually) crashing into a cement wall at what? 200mph? then they flip and roll several times (theres your “second impact” for ya) the whole car is destroyed except what? thats right, the carbon fiber shell!

    Third, if I remember correctly, when the stig crashed the Koenigsegg they were amazed BECAUSE it was only a little bit of damage done to only the front bumper. And Jeremy commented that it broke in a similar fashion to glass, as in cracking into pieces, not like steel would.

    Fourth, when you get into an accident, do you usually drive away and into another car or do you usually stay there? So even if your “second impact” theory had any truth to it, when would it apply to real life anyway?

    And I even need to disagree with you on the look of carbon fiber. I like the look of the inside of any ferrari, and they are all riddled with carbon fiber. I’ll agree that a lot of manufacturers use carbon fiber as a decorative piece poorly, but I dont think carbon fiber itself looks bad at all.

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