GM grabs a technology found on supercars and high-end EVs and drops it into America’s most popular vehicle type.
Carbon fiber was future-tech until today at 3 pm when General Motors announced that its 2019 GMC Sierra will have an optional carbon fiber composite cargo bed. Called CarbonPro, the new material drops 62 pounds from the weight of the full-sized Sierra.
The term “carbon fiber”, when applied to automobiles, refers to a rigid composite material made up of carbon fibers and an epoxy or other plastic material. The fibers are manufactured much like a textile and molded to form a solid shape. The composite material is baked in a special oven at high temperatures to cure and the resulting parts normally require some post-molding finish work. Because the material is formed, cured, and has post-curing manufacturing steps it started out as a very expensive material and was used primarily to reduce weight, increase rigidity and provide protection in race cars and supercars. From there, the material evolved in many ways. The BMW i3 electric vehicle was one of the first non-performance vehicles to incorporate carbon fiber in its construction. BMW used a newer, lower-cost type of carbon fiber to build the i3, and to keep costs down, BMW even located the plant near a source of low-cost hydroelectric power. Toyota also adopted a carbon fiber reinforced composite material rear hatch in 2016 for its Prius Prime plug-in hybrid electric vehicle. By comparison to trucks, these two EVs have tiny sales volumes.
Relatively affordable carbon fiber reinforced plastic components for performance cars have been on the market now for a decade. Here and there, mainstream automakers added bits and pieces that required high strength, high rigidity, and low weight. Still pricey, the material costs have come down significantly and that is the reason the material is starting to find wider adoption. Until the Sierra, it was hard to point to a high-volume vehicle that used carbon fiber reinforced plastic in large amounts.
GMC says that its new 2019 Sierra’s standard roll-formed, high-strength steel carbo box is a whopping 50% stronger than the 2018 Sierra’s steel bed material. Yet, even with that high strength, GMC says the CarbonPro is tougher. GMC says its CarbonPro cargo box was designed to offer best-in-class scratch and dent resistance. With carbon fiber’s corrosion resistance, GM says the new box is the most durable pickup box in the segment.
GMC’s CFRP cargo box is not the first non-metallic cargo bed in a successful pickup truck. The Toyota Tacoma and Honda Ridgeline midsized pickup trucks have been using a plastic composite bed for over a decade, though not made from carbon fiber. Back in 2005, an article in Composite World predicted that the “Big Three” automakers would switch to a composite bed at some point in time when the cost came in line with their target market. That point in time was 3 pm March 1st, 2018.