BMW April 2022

If “vehicle body” is our thing, it stands to reason that we have an interest in body construction and the materials used in the latest models. The bare shell of a vehicle is in fact the most expensive part of the car. It keeps us safe, and it holds the hidden shape and design for the outer panels to show off. It is the challenge of the repair industry to accurately identify almost invisible structural damage to the inner vehicle body following a collision, and to select a suitable repair method or course of action to meet high manufacturer standards.

We are in the middle of an enormous change right now with the growth of electrically powered vehicles, not just in the technology, but in the vehicle’s body structure itself. The repair industry must now work to understand the changes that are inevitably coming. 

It’s all about weight. The balance of weight versus power. The weight of a vehicle is the biggest barrier to better efficiency, energy use and range capability. So, when it comes to designing an electric car, every ounce counts to maximise the distance the car can travel on battery power. 

The new hybrid electric BMW Mini Countryman is some 300g heavier than the non-electrical petrol model. And in 2023, Mini plans to launch an all new – even bigger Countryman – so vehicle manufacturers are all looking at ways to reduce material weight, without compromising strength and durability. EV battery cells add significant weight and the heavier the car, the more cells it needs to power it.

Blended plastic materials are being used for outer panels such as front wings, and aluminium remains a strong contender for so many other panels, including roof skins. Interestingly, aluminium is just one-third the weight of steel.

High-strength steel is still common in body construction; however, some car manufacturers are now producing a carbon fibre tub for the entire passenger zone, which is basically Formula 1 technology but safer, stronger and so much lighter than steel. 

Could carbon fibre be the answer? And what would it mean to the repair industry if all vehicle bodies were made of carbon, not steel?

Researcher at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden have developed a carbon fibre that can act as an electrode, turning this form of material into a battery. This means that a vehicle with parts made from this carbon fibre strain could store energy within those parts, just like a battery cell, which may mitigate the need for extra cells and the issue of added weight to gain more power. 

This technology is still in the development stage, but researchers are working with VMs to test its functionality.

Our interest and necessity to learn and keep pace with modern EVs clearly extends beyond the drive train. We are seeing body construction and common-use materials evolve more right now than they ever have in the past 100 years of automotive history. What an exciting and challenging time to be alive!

As these new materials are used on today’s motor cars, a demand for a completely new repair approach will undoubtedly present itself.