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Toyota Says Carbon Fiber Usage is about More Than Saving Weight

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2017 Toyota Prius Prime exterior

Toyota recently won an Altair Enlighten Award for the innovative weight reduction featured in the 2017 Toyota Prius Prime and 2017 Lexus LC 500, which used carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CBRP) in unusual areas like the liftgate and luggage hatch in order to cut weight.

However, even though the parts represent a 40% to 50% weight reduction, which helps improve batter range in the Prius Prime and performance in the LC 500, the Japanese automaker says that using CBRP is about more than just making the cars as light as possible.

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According to JP Flaharty, executive program manager for technical strategy at Toyota North America R&D, using carbon fiber sheet molded compound—referred to as SMC—has allowed designers to improve package space in the Prius Prime, even after accounting for the additional room required by the batteries.

“We’re looking for ways to benefit the customer that go beyond weight reduction,” Flaharty said. “It’s also about the structure and the way we’ve executed the car: better sight lines, better usability, better utility space.”

In the Prius Prime, SMC has permitted Toyota to construct narrower rear pillars to improve outward visibility for drivers.

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Though Toyota used similar materials for the Lexus LFA supercar, manufacturing SMC is still new to the automaker. For now the company is working with Mitsubishi Chemicals to use chopped carbon fibers instead of long fibers, which is faster and easier to work with given the context of mass-market vehicles.

“The material we’re using is more similar in design and manufacturing conceptually to sheet metal forming,” Flaharty said. “You’re making a mold, you’re making a shape, it’s got this 3-D characteristic to it. So we’ve got a lot of know-how and a lot of understanding in how that works. We can align our capabilities to do this internally.”