Earlier this week, the New York Times ran an article on Obama’s new rules which would raise the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. There are a lot of questions about how this goal or one close to it can be achieved with internal combustion (rather than electric) drive trains, but one thing is sure: there would need to be a major reduction in vehicle weight. And this can only be achieved by substituting carbon fiber-based structural composites for steel, which, in spite of the growing use of various plastics in cars, is still responsible for most of an automobiles’ weight.
My May 4, 2012 post on this blog discussed the (slow) progress that car manufacturers are making in building lighter cars and pointed to the need for much greater carbon fiber use. Part of the problem is the high cost of these fibers, which are currently almost exclusively made from polyacrylonitrile. Other materials are being developed, but this will take time, with collaboration by government and industry groups.
Meanwhile, there is likely to be serious pushback on these proposed new CAFE standards. With more oil being found here, people are less concerned about “running out of oil” or about a major rise in oil prices. More SUV’s are being bought again. Auto manufacturers make more money with big cars. And, as far as carbon fiber bodies are concerned, there may be issues with cost of repairs. And lighter cars may or may not have safety issues. Also, electric cars are not gaining much traction because of high battery costs. Environmentalists have not figured out how the electric power to drive large numbers of electric cars would be produced, given their aversion to coal and, to some extent, to nuclear power. For all these reasons, there is uncertainty about how far manufacturers will go to radically change the type and design of new cars.
A highly dramatic view of what extensive use of carbon fibers in automobiles might achieve is presented by famous, frequently controvesial environmentalist Amory Lovins.