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Advanced Composites For Future Cars

December 3, 2009

Living On The Road With Behemoths

I spent a number of years in the 1980s & 1990s working with high tech companies in aerospace and automotive applications using advance composites and automation technologies. I enjoyed learning about the industry and have a continued interest in the field. I was happy to report in my last post about the opening of the UW/Lamborghini Composites Lab.

Composite materials have been used for decades in aerospace, automotive and sports applications. In fact the Wright Flyer, made of woven fabric skin and spruce structure was a composite aircraft. As was Hughes’, “Spruce Goose.” Advanced composite materials, such as carbon-epoxy composites, are typically three or four times lighter than their metal counterparts and many times stronger.  Limitations in use of composites have been due principally to cost and production constraints.



Specific tensile strength versus specific modulus of selected metals and composites are compared.

If high performance vehicles are to be fast, safe and economical they certainly will use composites. Weight and range are important, but passenger safety is critical to the success of the new breed of lightweight cars that need to share the road with their more massive metal-based behemoths. Heavy SUVs, town cars and big trucks will be around for the foreseeable future.


Small car makers need to use the advantages of superior material and structural design to keep their customers safe in an unfair freeway fight. It’s no good being green if your dead. We’ve learned a lot from automobile racing on how drivers can walk away from horrendous crashes by using well designed harnesses, airbags and safety cages. It’s an engineering problem that is solved with brilliance, money and time.

This post explores the innovative use of advanced composites in solving life and death engineering challenges.

One of the best examples of the next generation of high-efficiency, safe vehicles is Aptera, made in Vista, California, just north of San Diego. Below are some links to videos and articles about Aptera Motors, the Hypercar concept vehicle and introductory information on advanced composites. I’ll save discussion of composite material and nano technology for a future post.

The Edmunds video of the Aptera below, shows its good use of lightweight composites with performance and safety advantages.

In this fun and excellent video (after the commercial), Jay Leno talks to Paul Wilbur, Aptera Motors CEO and then takes the Aptera out for a drive. Jay makes an astute observation when he says being in an Aptera is like, “driving in a helmet” because, even though the vehicle is considered a three-wheeled motorcycle, you are not required to wear a helmet. The car’s cab is like a helmet due to its design and use of high strength composite technology.

Another good discussion of future use composites in cars comes from the Science Channel.

The video above is all about the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Hypercar broadcast as part of the Science Channel’s Eco-tech series. The Hypercar is a 100 MPG SUV concept that achieves such high a MPG number by reducing waste. RMI designed the SUV to be built with light carbon fiber for example. Amory Lovins “re-invented” carbon fiber with FiberForge which aims to be the “highest volume composite process in the world.”

Here’s a good intro to composites and where the above chart was sourced.

Stronger and Lighter — Composites Make Their Mark

MARCH 20, 2008
Jean M. Hoffman
A composite material is two or more materials bonded together. This distinguishes composites from metallic alloys, in which one constituent is dissolved in another. Biological structural materials in nature including wood, bamboo, bone, teeth, and shell are all composites. Use of synthetic composite materials is not new. Bricks made from straw-reinforced mud are mentioned in the Old Testament. Full article…

I am a fan of  Tesla Motors, Aptera and our local Arcimoto electric cars and, I follow with delight the race for practical low emission future cars. It’s a comin’, but affordable solutions are still down the road aways. The U.S. has actively been pursuing this holy grail since the early 1970s when we were first hit with the OPEC oil boycott crisis. We’ve got a way to go before battery, range, speed and safety problems are solved. Then there will be infrastructure changes like charging stations and battery or fuel cell recycling that need to be put in place.

Even the highly anticipated and well received Aptera has hit a rough patch. There are already 4,000 orders for the car which was to be released this quarter. But, the company has had to put off delivery of the car, disappointing its customers and fans, due to a shortage of funds. A recent NY Times article on Aptera’s financial difficulties quoted Paul Wilbur, Aptera’s chief executive, who said that vehicle development “has been outpacing the rate of fund-raising.” For the full article…

Future lightweight cars will have to coexist with older gas burning heavy metal monsters and Americans will continue to love and buy their muscle cars and SUVs. Fortunately, we will  have many more choices in the kind of car we want to drive, and that’s what we’re about.

Many of those choices will be offered by Asian and European competitors to U.S. companies. There is a worldwide race to win a share of the future car market. Big, old companies and small start-ups, like Daimler (Mercedes) and Tesla are teaming-up to share technology and global markets. In future posts I’ll talk about what’s coming in nano tech composite technology, smart power grids, intelligent transportation systems, smart cars and garages and how the government plans on being your copilot where ever you go.

When will practical low-energy, clean running vehicles be available  and who will be building those future cars? We’ll have to wait till we crest the next hill to find out. Enjoy the drive!

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