Lightweight body panels, engine under covers and other parts can be made from carbon fiber composites to save weight, which saves fuel by decreasing the mass to be accelerated by the engine. The implications for the future of fuel consumption and regulations are obvious. The only major problem facing the widespread adoption of carbon fiber is the cost - but companies in Japan are working on projects to bring carbon fiber to the masses.

Japan accounts for about 50% of the world's total carbon fiber output each year, thanks to the work of two companies, Toray and Teijin. Both are working to develop new carbon-fiber composites that combine low cost and light weight for application in the next generation of hybrid and standard vehicles.

Currently, the two primary barriers to low-cost carbon fiber production are the high energy costs of the manufacturing process and the length of time - hours, at a minimum - necessary to mold and cure carbon fiber parts, reports Automotive News.

By contrast, sheet metal requires only seconds to stamp. And despite the difficult process of smelting, molding and rolling out sheets of steel, the carbon fiber production process is still energy-intensive in comparison. Thin strands of pitch, rayon or a material known as PAN are baked in ovens at temperatures of 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit (1,982 degrees Celsius) until they are 95% percent or more pure carbon, then the threads are woven into yarns or cloths to be integrated into various types of components.

Only about 1% of all the carbon fiber produced in the world is currently used for automotive applications, and the vast majority of that ends up in very high-end sports and luxury cars. Making carbon fiber and its composites available and affordable in the average car is still several years away, at least.

However, as fuel prices rise and safety standards place pressure on manufacturers to improve crash results and structural integrity without increasing weight, the viability of carbon fiber can only rise, as it is a very handy tool to solve both problems.