For decades, the composites industry has been searching for ways to gain traction in the mainstream automotive market. Four years ago, the EPA announced a fuel economy standard of 54.5 mpg for automakers to reach by 2025, which had led to more OEMs looking wherever they can make all types of vehicles lighter.

Composites have made strides in recent years, with major applications including the BMW i3, the Volkswagen XL1, and recently the 2017 Honda Ridgeline.

Another OEM, Ford, has also been pushing the envelope with composites. Last year, it became the first major automaker to mass-produce carbon fiber wheels for a production vehicle, and its supercar, the Ford GT, is also chock full of carbon fiber. Composites Manufacturing recently spoke with David Wagner, the technical leader for lightweight vehicle design at Ford, to get his thoughts on the current state of composites in automotive.

Q: Please describe what you do at Ford as the company’s technical leader for lightweight vehicle design.

A: I’m in the Research & Advanced Engineering organization, and our team works on ideas for vehicles that are typically beyond the immediate cycle plan. I do work on lightweight body and chassis ideas that could be included in future vehicle plans. In other words, a lot of things I can’t quite talk to you about yet.

Q: How do you view the current state of composites in the automotive industry?

A: It’s poised for a breakthrough. With the work that BMW and a couple of others are doing, there’s initial work out there that makes it look very attractive. Carbon fiber is the essential element of our Ford GT supercar. All of the automotive industry has been working on carbon fiber for lots of years on the low-volume specialty vehicles, and it’s getting closer and closer to making the breakthrough into high-volume, regular series production. Certainly the work BMW has done with the 7 series is something we’re watching with great interest. In our research and development exercises, this is all very, very interesting.

Q: You mention the Ford GT. The other major application that comes to mind regarding Ford is the mass production of carbon fiber wheels for the GT350R Mustang, which Ford wrote “Using carbon fiber reduced the overall vehicle weight by 60 pounds compared to aluminum.” So what are your thoughts for the potential CFRP wheels throughout the entire automotive industry? 

A: The way the wheels are made are right for the GT350R. The high-volume implications aren’t clear yet. It’s not viable at a mass production level yet because of both cost and the amount of time it takes to make the wheels. [However], the wheels are a great opportunity for carbon fiber. It has the direct benefit of reducing weight, but it also has an additional benefit of reducing the rotating mass and the rotational inertia [of wheels]. That gives you a ride and handling and a steering improvement, as well as an acceleration improvement. Because it doesn’t take as much energy to spin up the wheels, you get an additional benefit when you take the weight out of those rotating parts. That’s one of the reasons it was exciting to do the wheels [with carbon fiber] as opposed to non-moving parts.