BMW is betting big on carbon-fiber. What impact could carbon-fiber have on the auto industry?

A key to fuel economy?

The strength of carbon fiber

These days any conversation regarding fuel economy, oil dependence, etc. ultimately seems to always resolve to batteries. Yet, the research on batteries seems to indicate that if the battery is the future of the auto industry, the world has many decades before that future fully unfolds.

Consequently, is it not fair to ask whether there is too much focus on the battery, particularly in the short term? For instance, could something like carbon-fiber also be a game changer?

BMW, for instance, has just opened a new carbon fiber plant in Washington along with partner SGL Group to develop carbon fiber body parts for the upcoming line of Megacity vehicles, including plug-ins. By cutting vehicle weight by 30 percent, BMW can achieve significant gains in EV range. Moreover, by cutting vehicle weight by 30 percent, BMW can also achieve significant gains in fuel efficiency in any kind of vehicle.

Likewise, carbon fiber offers this decrease in weight without also decreasing safety, and obviously safety is probably the most important factor for most US auto consumers. But it isn’t just carbon fiber that offers fuel-efficiency increasing safety capabilities.

New software programs might one day soon make even the smallest cars as safe as the largest cars, trucks and SUVs, and that could make many more auto consumers more comfortable in much smaller and lighter vehicles. Coupled with start/stop technology, or even just a mild hybrid powertrain, such small and light vehicles could offer very significant increases in fuel economy, without any drop in safety. Moreover, perhaps with scale, such vehicles could quickly be mass-manufactured with very little increase in cost.

While the battery is certainly one of the most – if not the most – interesting and important technological developments of the auto industry, its impact on the likes of oil dependency and CO2 emissions will still be minimal for decades. Consequently, might not more competition between numerous technologies – a level playing field – be required to achieve the biggest gains in efficiency in the quickest amount of time?