Carbon fiber and e-mobility are complementary, not competing technologies

By John Leech, Partner and Head of Automotive, KPMG in the UK

Launched with much fanfare in July 2013, the all-electric BMW i3 has got everyone discussing carbon fiber, the ultra-lightweight material used extensively in the chassis.

The material itself is nothing new, having been deployed by Formula 1 teams and aircraft manufacturers for decades, more recently in high-end cars. However, its appearance in a mass produced road car suggests that carbon fiber prices make the technology a better bet than e-propulsion.

With high costs and limited driving ranges, electric cars have yet to achieve their hoped-for breakthrough. Even with a range extender, the i3’s top distance is 290 km (180 miles).

Every ounce removed from an e-vehicle brings its commercialization one step further. However, the excessive carbon fiber body cost is one reason behind the i3’s modest annual sales forecasts of 20,000 units.

With a while to go before electric propulsion or carbon fiber become mainstream, industry and governments should recognize that the technologies’ futures are inextricably linked.

The i3 has excited trade and private equity investors. If governments can pump further capital into lightweight materials and e-mobility, driving ranges will rise and costs will fall. With low market entry barriers for carbon fiber, new suppliers from the US, China, Germany, Japan and UK should quickly bring forward a material whose time may just have come.

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