Lightweighting: Taking carbon-fiber wheels mainstream

In the quest to improve automotive efficiency and performance, Carbon Revolution says the solution is carbon-fiber wheels.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
3 min read

Carbon fiber, the miracle material of the automotive world, finds uses in exterior elements, cabin trim and, in exotics and BMWs, structural pieces. Australian company Carbon Revolution proposes putting carbon fiber where the rubber meets the road, literally.

The company manufactures carbon-fiber wheels, and plans on taking them from limited use for supercars to mainstream production models.

Koenigssegg showed off carbon-fiber wheels in 2014 on its One:1 supercar, and last year Ford came out with the Shelby GT350R, including Carbon Revolution's wheels as part of the package. Each wheel weighs only 15 pounds, half that of aluminum alloy wheels, amounting to a 60-pound weight savings.

While Koenigsegg and Ford specified carbon fiber wheels for there cars to improve track performance, the wheels also work towards a recent goal of automotive engineers, increasing fuel efficiency through reducing weight. Carbon Revolution Executive Director Brett Gass described the company's mission as, "If we're going to lightweight anything, let's do wheels."

Gass points out that the weight savings from carbon-fiber wheels would be a boon on electric cars, where efficiency is critical. But he also raises another point: carbon-fiber wheels are quieter than their metal counterparts. He says that "carbon fiber has 870 percent better noise damping" than metal, as carbon fiber is less prone to transmitting resonant frequencies. Less noise coming up from the wheels could let automakers use less noise-deadening materials in a car's body, further reducing weight.

Carbon Revolution's wheels met Ford's specifications for its Shelby GT 350R, and Gass says that specifications for less performance-oriented cars would be easier to meet, suggesting that the wheels are as strong as their metal equivalents. When it comes to typical wheel damage, such as curb scrapes, Gass points out that carbon fiber can be fixed with resins, similar to repairing damage to fiberglass boats. Further, where a crack in a metal wheel may expand, the layered nature of carbon-fiber material tends to arrest crack formation.

Koenigsegg One:1
Enlarge Image
Koenigsegg One:1

Carbon fiber wheels on the Koenigsegg One:1 supercar, unveiled in 2014, weigh only 15 pounds each.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The advantages that Carbon Revolution touts for its wheels sound numerous, but cost is still a factor. Currently, a set of aftermarket carbon-fiber wheels can run to $15,000. However, with mass production as original equipment for an automaker, the cost comes down dramatically. Gass points out that that Carbon Revolution has managed to cut down its own manufacturing costs per wheel by half in three years, and expects a further 30 to 40 percent cost reduction over the next two years.

Carbon Revolution is gearing up its wheel production from its Australian plant, and has sold its 50,000-unit capacity through 2017. The company is expecting to open new plants in other regions.

From its manufacturing process, each wheel comes out as a single piece. The hollow spokes use a foam core, and Carbon Revolution also embeds an RFID chip in each wheel, something not possible with metal wheels. The company currently uses the chip to provide authentication against counterfeit parts, but the chip can also be used to identify the car for which the wheel was designed, down to specific VIN.

Given the advantages of carbon-fiber wheels and improved manufacturing processes to cut costs, they will likely spread through the automotive market over the next few years, beginning with use on production cars from automakers' performance divisions, working their way down through specialty applications, like electric cars and maybe, one day, down to the Toyota Corollas of the world.