For decades the big auto manufacturers have always believed that stronger steel made a stronger vehicle. Mercedes-Benz was and still is a primary innovator among these companies. However, there was a design tradeoff in that the heavier the vehicle in overall weight, the slower it went and the stronger the engine needed to be.
Vehicle design engineers dreamed of the days when cars didn’t need as much steel as they did, but the hard truth of fatal collisions and accidents, as well as lawsuits, forced the minimum amount of metal in the car frame and parts as necessary. However, with today’s technology, the impossible is now very much possible. And much of it has to do with carbon fiber technology.
The Many Make One Strong
The idea of carbon fiber as a material for strength is not a new one. Ancient Greek fables and stories established the knowledge in ancient times that while thin strands in and of themselves were weak, together they could be very resilient and strong. Fast forward to modern times, and the creation of carbon fiber in a functional auto body design has made the ancient fable one of the avenues carmakers are pursuing for lighter vehicles with parts just as strong as steel.
Interestingly, the fiber part production method is many times still the same as it was years ago. The initial phase involves literally cutting and shaping the fiber, layer by layer. Then it is formed together in a molding process with hardening chemicals. The mold itself also requires some time to make because it is the unique shape needed to bake the fiber into its proper form. The molds only last for so many baking cycles and then need to be replaced. After a very long baking process that is labor intensive, the part is finally ready. However, for years it was an out of reach process because the labor element made it so expensive to achieve part by part.
Early Ventures Limited to Extreme Cars
When it comes to Mercedes-Benz, their carbon fiber approach was originally limited to high-end luxury one-off vehicles like the SLR McLaren. That vehicle was hand-built with a full carbon fiber frame and body pieces. From the door to the hood, every part was a fiber composite. No surprise, the vehicle was extremely fast, unhindered by the weight of metal body parts and being even lighter than aluminum. However, it wasn’t cheap either; the McLaren hit the upper reaches with a price tag of $400,000 plus.
Getting Realistic About Carbon Fiber Usage
From the above, Mercedes-Benz had to become strategic with how it applied carbon fiber technology. That in turn, meant specific parts would get the benefit of composite replacement versus the entire car. The frame remained a high-tensile steel, but specific large body parts enjoyed the change out to carbon fiber. As a result, this mix produced what we know now as the Mercedes-Benz GLE 450 AMG Coupe. Specifically, the roof will have an exclusive carbon fiber fabrication versus metal. That in turn dramatically reduces the car’s weight, but it’s still a high-cost swap out.
Some movement has occurred in speeding up the carbon fiber process as well as reducing the labor element involved. Both have the potential to bring the production cost down for Mercedes-Benz vehicles, which in turn allows the company to consider a greater use in assembly-line production. Everything from the hardening chemicals used to the method of baking is being tested for higher efficiencies and less expense in production.
Another aspect in play involves changeouts of the type of base materials used to create the carbon fiber layers. While aerospace-grade materials were originally used, due to the assumption that it was the strongest if it could withstand space, carmakers are now looking to turn down the performance level a few notches. The road and elements don’t need to have the strength to hold up to a solar flare; they just need to retain solid body shape while driving. That in turn also has the potential to allow Mercedes-Benz to find additional savings in lower grade base material while still producing
The road and elements don’t need to have the strength to hold up to a solar flare; they just need to retain solid body shape while driving. That in turn also has the potential to allow Mercedes-Benz to find additional savings in lower grade base material while still producing high-quality carbon fiber.
Realistic Now, But Still Looking to the Future
Given the features and benefit being realized in the Mercedes-Benz GLE Coupe, it’s clear that the mixed hybrid approach is the way to go with current capabilities. Trying to achieve an entire car in carbon fiber is still out of practical reach for multiple-unit production, but mixed assemblies are not. The GLE Coupe is an ideal example, utilizing carbon fiber heavily in the interior assembly. However, the path towards lower cost production still has a long way to go. As a result, high-end extreme luxury cars are still going to be the main benefactors of carbon fiber integrated into assembly designs.