Auto engineers are constantly devising ways to improve car safety, as evidenced by the numerous upgrades to advanced safety features. However, even the most innovative driver’s aids can’t protect you if you’re riding on poor construction. Though most cars have steel or aluminum frames, carbon fiber is becoming more popular.
Modern sports cars and luxury vehicles commonly feature carbon fiber parts and accessories. On some models, every body panel or even the chassis is made of carbon fiber. Is this lightweight material just a trend, or is it actually superior to aluminum and steel?
What are modern cars made of?
According to J.D. Power, steel has been used to make car bodies and chassis for nearly a century. It’s practical for vehicle construction because it’s extremely strong and relatively affordable to obtain. However, in recent years, more automakers have been using aluminum instead of steel.
Aluminum is even more durable despite its lighter weight. It’s an ideal material for improving a vehicle’s fuel economy; plus, it makes a car faster and easier to maneuver. Aluminum has also replaced cast iron as the primary engine block material in many vehicles.
High-performance vehicles like supercars and hypercars might use titanium or magnesium elements. Aside from the main body materials, automakers also use copper for most electrical components. Catalytic converters are typically made with platinum and rhodium, while lead-acid batteries are made from soft lead.
Why carbon fiber reigns supreme
Producing a lightweight, stable car using steel or aluminum can be difficult. Carbon fiber is the best material for the task. Why? It’s bonded with rigid carbon that doesn’t weigh as much as aluminum. In addition, carbon fiber can absorb harder impacts, making it a safer alternative to other construction methods, BMW explains.
Enhanced safety is one of the many reasons why carbon fiber is the go-to material for racing cars, according to SMI Composites. Race cars are driven at incredibly high speeds, often for many miles at a time. Some components are bound to break eventually, and replacing them multiple times can be costly.
Carbon fiber has the highest stiffness and strength per density compared to any other manufacturing material. Not only can it take some heavy hits, but it also provides the best weight-to-power ratio. Carbon fiber cars are five times lighter than steel cars, even with a powerful engine on board.
While steel race cars can protect drivers adequately, their heavier frames make it harder to tackle tight turns. Combine steel with a big engine, and you might have one of the slowest cars on the track.
Carbon fiber is also ideal for sports cars because it stays cool. Even when a driver pushes a vehicle to its limits, it likely won’t overheat because the fibers don’t conduct heat. This material also has a low thermal expansion point, so it won’t weaken even after repeated exposure to high temperatures.
Are there any downsides to using carbon fiber for cars?
Though it has no obvious performance flaws, the material is more expensive than aluminum or steel. Carbon fiber is mainly manmade, so you’re paying for the extra technology and labor. That’s why it’s usually used only by luxury automakers and racecar teams with large budgets.
That also means replacing a damaged part will be expensive. The good news is that the material’s production continues to become cheaper as its popularity grows in automotive use. Plus, because of carbon fiber’s incredible durability, repairs are few and far between.