Forecasts for wide-scale composite applications in the automotive industry are pushed back as industry makes efficiency improvements and compiles data.

There’s little doubt that composite components are going to play a major role in shaping the future of the automotive industry. Between federal mandates to lower fuel consumption and expanded use of composites in commercial trucking and similar industries, it seems inevitable. Experts have predicted that the wide-scale manufacture of composite-intensive vehicles will become the norm in the next five years. But they’ve been singing that tune for at least six years now.

In 2011 when BMW unveiled its all-electric i3 car, with its comprehensive specification of composite parts including a CFRP passenger cell, there was a sense that the use of composite components would leap forward. Finally automotive designers and engineers would have the evidence they needed to confidently design future iterations of composite-laden automobiles.

And now? “The timeframe for penetration of composites in the automotive market seems to be moving out,” says Terrence J. O’Donovan, vice president of marketing and sales for Core Molding Technologies Inc. and chair of ACMA’s Automotive Composites Alliance (ACA).

Many composites experts looking to gain a bigger chunk of the automotive market agree that the 5-year forecast for more explosive use of fiber-based materials didn’t exactly hold true. But these experts add that this moving target doesn’t make the automotive market any less promising – and the forecasts may not be far off.

Lightweighting is Part of a Bigger Puzzle

The majority of the respondents to a 2017 survey on the federal government’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, sponsored by DuPont with WardsAuto and conducted by Penton Market Research, indicated that lightweighting is still considered the best solution for meeting the 2025 fuel efficiency standards. The majority of the nearly 750 surveyed professionals in automotive design, manufacture or component supply indicated that improvements to lightweighting through the use of lighter structural materials remains the best way to achieve the fuel reduction necessary. Additionally, 44 percent of survey respondents indicated that powertrain and chassis are the top two vehicle systems that automakers are targeting for weight reductions.

Composite materials are still seen as a leading material in terms of meeting these lightweighting expectations. Solutions like Core Molding Technologies’ lower-density sheet molding compounds (SMCs) achieve new strides in lightweighting. The company now has a full range of SMC systems at a 1.2 specific gravity, which O’Donovan says has become the new de facto standard for low-density composites. More specifically Hydrilite®, with its 0.98 specific gravity, takes the density of sheet molding thermosets below the range of thermoplastics and below the density of water. “We have developed material systems and innovative manufacturing methods that have found application in underbody shields and electric vehicle battery covers,” O’Donovan adds.