Since the hybrid movement began almost 20 years ago, the vast majority of “green car” initiatives have surrounded power. Can we make a more efficient engine? Can we pair it with an electric motor? What about diesel, natural gas, or pure electrics?
The focus has not been, however, on rolling resistance. After all, a 1 liter engine can move a 600 lb motorcycle quickly and efficiently. Yes, most hybrids and electrics have worked on aerodynamics, but they’re still packed with heavy batteries and motors, and those aren’t likely to get lighter any time soon.
The solution, then, is to make the rest of the car lighter, like the Detroit Electrics SP:01, whose stats were announced recently. Its 201 hp, 166 lb-ft electric motor can push the car to 60 in just 3.7 seconds and finish with a limited top speed of 155 mph. It has the quickest acceleration of any production electric car. It also has a range of 180 miles. How has the Detroit startup accomplished such wizardry? Did they make a deal with some Alien hippies? Are they currently disrupting the space/time continuum? Did they hire the actual wizard who lives under the Ambassador bridge? (Last time we “hired” him, he took the money and ran across the surface of the river. We chased him a while, but it got pretty gross.)
It turns out they just made the car very light. They started, of course, with the poster child for low-weight motoring, the simplify-and-add-lightness Lotus Elise. The platform is aluminum, and they’ve made all the bodywork out of carbon fiber. That means a total figure of just 2,354 lbs, pretty remarkable for a battery-laden electric. It only weighs about 350 lbs more than a stock Elise.
And it costs $135,000. One hundred thirty five thousand dollars. Why does a $50k Elise cost $135k? Several reasons, really. It’s a pretty limited production, with a projected 2,500 cars per year. It’s also a startup company, and the batteries and motor tech are likely state of the art. But we suspect a lot of that cost is tied up in the carbon fiber.
Invented in the ‘50s, carbon fiber is essentially a weave of high tensile fibers coated in resin. The resulting material is extremely lightweight, but also extremely strong. How strong? We’re glad you asked. Strong enough to compose the chassis of several hypercars from Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Koenigsegg. The latter is even working on CF engine components.
But it’s just as expensive as it is incredible. One pound of carbon fiber, while covering more area, is $15, compared to a 40 cent pound of steel. Most of that cost comes in the manufacturing process. Individual fibers must be refined, woven, hand-cut, molded with resin, and essentially baked in a gigantic pressurized oven for about an hour and a half. Not as easy as pouring plastic or fiberglass into a form and letting it cool.
Still, it’s getting cheaper thanks to advancements in robotics to cut the fiber, faster resin injection and setting, and less time in the autoclave, the oven we mentioned. People far smarter than us all over the world are also working on new types of carbon for the fibers themselves. These would take less heat and energy to refine, and some concepts are even derived from wood, meaning they could, theoretically, be grown.
And thankfully, soon CF won’t just be for exotics anymore. Toyota, Subaru, Nissan, Ford, GM, and BMW are all investing in CF manufacturing. It may not be long before you find that all the body panels, and perhaps even the frame on your Focus or Corolla to be made of CF. That’s quite the significant weight savings, and that means a more efficient ride for everybody, and a much faster ride for us.