TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Five years ago at the Center for Automotive Research’s Management Briefings Seminars here, some participants foresaw carbon fiber becoming more popular as an automotive material.

“You have to look at options, and one of them is carbon-fiber composites,” a Dow engineer said at the time.

The appeal? The material is strong, fatigue-resistant, impervious to corrosion and lightweight. The latter is particularly alluring as automakers strive to reduce vehicle weight to gain greater fuel efficiency.

The next-age material will be carbon-fiber reinforced polymers, an Audi executive said at the 2012 conference.

But at this year’s event, an engineer who heads BMW’s lightweighting efforts is less bullish on the prospects of carbon fiber’s greater application on vehicles.

The reason: It’s expensive. It always has been. There had been industry talk of bringing the costs down by forming purchasing consortiums, but there hasn’t been much movement there.

“The main challenge of carbon-fiber materials is still the cost,” says Florian Schek, BMW’s head of lightweight design and vehicle weight. “The cost is still too high, and it’s a difficult technology.”   

Its use on vehicles remains generally limited to the bodies and chassis sections of Formula 1 race cars, costly exotics and ultra-luxury models.

Schek notes carbon fiber isn’t on the recently introduced new generation of the BMW 5-Series sedan, which is priced between $51,000 and $77,500. Its lightweight materials include aluminum and magnesium.

However, the 7-Series sedan launched with extensive carbon-fiber-reinforced sections of the body, and the i3 electric vehicle and i8 plug-in hybrid have carbon-fiber occupant cells.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com