Are Japanese carmakers mulling carbon fiber cars?

One of the benefits of soaring commodity prices is that alternative technologies, often superior but more costly, edge closer to becoming viable. But surely reports that coming out of Japan today that carbon fiber-based cars could be ready for the mass market in just a few year are a little far fetched?

According to the reports, Honda, Nissan and Toray Industries, a leading maker of carbon fiber, are poised to join forces and aim to find ways of mass producing carbon fiber which could replace “most of the steel used in cars” by the mid-2010s. To speed things along, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry will provide $18.5 million of funding over five years and a host of over companies and researchers will join the efforts.

It’s easy to see the attraction of the carbon fiber. It’s stronger than iron and only a quarter of the weight. What’s more, by using carbon fiber instead of steel, cars could be 40% lighter and improve fuel economy and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 30%, reports Japan’s Nihon Keizai paper. (Showing off its green credentials, Toyota showed off a partially finished carbon fiber body at last year’s Tokyo Motor Show called the 1/X.)

Yet great as all that sounds, quite how any group will bring down costs of producing carbon fiber for mass production isn’t at all clear. Sure, carbon fiber is a fine material for Formula One cars and high-end bicycles, but even with commodity prices soaring, steel is is still several tens of times cheaper than carbon fiber to produce.

That could be why Nissan and Honda are both shying away from today’s Nihon Keizai article. Nissan says it is incorrect and Honda says the information isn’t from them.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.