In 2014, the U.S. automotive/transportation industry grew for the fifth consecutive year. Auto sales were projected to reach 16.5 million units, and light-duty vehicle production in North America was projected to grow by 5.6 percent. Growth in demand can be attributed to the easy availability of credit at low interest rates, increasing consumer confidence and the introduction of fuel-efficient vehicles.
Demand for composites in the U.S. automotive industry grew by 6.3 percent in 2014 due to increasing use of fiberglass composites in interior, exterior and underbody applications as well as the higher use of carbon fiber composites in high-performance vehicles. Last year, SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers announced plans to triple its manufacturing capacity of carbon fiber by early 2015. At present, SGL has the capacity to produce 3,000 tons of carbon fiber.
Industry regulations, such as the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard in the United States and the European Union Automotive Fuel Economy (UNEP) standard, present a challenge to automotive OEMs: They are charged with increasing fuel efficiency and reducing the carbon footprint. The past few years have seen rapid developments in lightweighting efforts to meet those requirements. With aluminum, high-strength steel, magnesium and composites emerging as the front runners in lightweighting, it remains unclear which material combination will dominate the auto industry.
Composite materials offer significant benefits to automakers. The use of carbon fiber reduces vehicle weight and, as result, increases fuel efficiency and lowers carbon dioxide emissions. However, carbon fiber comes with a price penalty. Strategic alliances – such as those between GM and Teijin, Ford and DowAksa, and Daimler AG and Toray Industries Inc. – are focused on incorporating carbon fiber in mass production vehicles.
Overall, market penetration of composites within automotive seems to follow a similar path as the early-adapting aerospace industry. Over time, aerospace has built significant confidence in composites technology, and next-generation aircraft now have about 50 percent composites content. With increasing lightweighting requirements, the auto industry will likely witness similar confidence in composites: The structures of the next-generation car models may reach 10 to 20 percent composites content in next 20 years.