Oil prices remain stubbornly high and gas prices correspondingly painful – have you noticed how they go up fast with a rise in the oil price, but only come down slowly if the oil price comes off?
Nevertheless, carmakers have seen the writing on the wall for years now, and those at the high end, or for whom the strongest business case can be made, have been pioneering the use of lightweight aluminum alloys for some time.
The first all-aluminum car came out some years ago, but makers like Audi are now featuring the use of aluminum from the compact A3 with an aluminum bonnet and front wings up to the A8 saloon with an all-aluminum body.
Indeed, the speed of conversion to aluminum has put strains on the supply chain in Europe as producers have struggled to match new investment to demand.
The FT explains how weight-saving has been such a central theme as carmakers at the Paris Motor Show have been unveiling new models.
Interestingly the main driver has not been offering buyers lower fuel consumption – although that is a big plus – but as Jaguar Land Rover has shown, a reduction in production costs can be just as important.
JLR has brought out the new Range Rover, the world’s first all-aluminum SUV. The new Range Rover’s body is 180 kilograms, or 39 percent lighter than a comparable steel body, allowing it to use a smaller engine with the same performance and thus save further weight and costs.
The amount of aluminum used per car produced in Europe increased from 50 kg (110 lbs) in 1990 to 140 kg (310 lbs) in 2012, according to the European Aluminum Association. A typical car weighs more than 1300 kg (2900 lbs), but currently most of that is cast aluminum used in transmissions, pistons and wheels – although aluminum sheet bodywork is becoming more common even among mainstream manufacturers such as VW Audi.
Steel producers are not sitting back and losing market share, though; by developing new alloys with greater strength characteristics, they are allowing thinner gauges to be used.
Steel remains the material of choice for most mass-market producers, at least for structural body applications. The FT reported VW shaved 23 kg (50 lbs) off the new Golf by adopting a new grade of steel rather than opting for a switch to aluminum.
Thankfully for the metals industry, alternative non-metallic materials like carbon fiber remain too expensive for anything other than exotic super-cars.