What the Detroit Auto Show does and does not show

There's carbon fiber in cars, not all of which is visible.

If you walked this year’s North American International Auto Show (NAIAS, Detroit, MI, US, Jan. 11-24), it was not difficult to get excited about the automotive industry. There was the inevitable glitz — bright lights, loud music, big crowds — but there also was substance. Attractive concept cars and the latest and greatest production vehicles, ranging from two- seater all-electrics to gargantuan pickups provided ample evidence of the automotive industry’s energy and conveyed a distinct sense of optimism about where this market is headed.

It also was not difficult to detect the influence of compos- ites. Automakers that use carbon fiber made sure that the tell-tale black (and in one case, blue) weave was in viewer sight lines on high-visibility parts. Indeed, carbon fiber could be found on rearview mirrors, interior trim parts, roofs and the exterior trim of concept cars. And then there was the carbon fiber you could not see (or not see so easily), includ- ing that used in the monocque passenger cell of the BMW i8 and i3 and the Alfa Romeo 4C Coupe and Cabriolet.

Viewed from the overall perspective, however, the 2016 model year vehicles at the show represented automotive technology that is, for the most part, about two years old. That is, the design cycle of the automotive industry forces automotive OEMs to work ahead of itself, which means that much of the materials technology on the floor in Detroit was conceived in the 2013-2014 timeframe. So, for all of the talk of late about the incursion of composites into automotive structures, it will likely be a year or two before the world sees the production vehicles that will result from that incursion, featuring greater use of composites in structural applications.

Then again, it’s likely that whatever the casual observer sees of composites in 2018 at the NAIAS will look a lot like it did in 2016. Visible carbon fiber will have its emphasis, and all of the other carbon fiber — likely a lot more of it — will be out of direct sight. In any case, composites of any kind, to have a seat at the table, must perform with adaptability, flexibility and speed. If, in fact, automakers are becoming increasingly “material agnostic,” then all of the materials at their disposal must be adaptable to a variety of designs and applications. Motorists, after all, are buying vehicles to meet their transportation needs, regardless of material.

So, CW will check in with the NAIAS from time to time for a holistic view of how the automotive world is evolving, but stay focused on those structures that are a little harder to see. 

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