A battle is raging in the metals world (which my counterpart on the Western side of the Atlantic touches on in her recent commentary), and not surprisingly, it is fiercest in the light-weighting of vehicles in the automotive sector – however, similar struggles can be seen across the transportation industry.
In an effort to meet both customer expectations and meet gradually more stringent fuel efficiency legislation, car-makers are adopting a twin track approach of lower vehicle weight light-weighting and improved engine efficiency. (Find more original MetalMiner coverage on light-weighting at the end of this article.)
An FT article quotes research done by Accenture saying consumer demand for more space, added features and improved safety has meant that average car weights have increased by about a quarter over the 30 years to 2006, yet fuel efficiency legislation is demanding weight reductions, not gains.
Leading the use of aluminum is the UK’s Jaguar Land Rover brand, which runs the world’s largest aluminum body shop in Solihull in the UK’s West Midlands. It manufactures the new Range Rover and Range Rover Sport from the metal, reducing each vehicle’s weight by some 500 kg – or roughly 20%.
Compared to the steel-built predecessor, the new models are said to use about 22% less fuel, but it’s not just about getting weight down, according to the FT; each Range Rover is held together with some 3,722 rivets, requiring no welding and thereby reducing energy consumption and cooling in the factory.
Ford’s new F-150 pickup is expected to feature widespread adoption of aluminum in its construction when it is released next year and will be in the vanguard of mainstream adoption of aluminum auto manufacturing in North America during the second half of the decade.
Steel’s Got Skin in the Game
Steel isn’t exactly sitting on the sidelines, though – aluminum panel forming requires different tooling and techniques to steel, challenging carmakers and requiring considerable new investment. In addition, the metal is more expensive, not to mention involving radical changes in supply chains.
High-strength steel varieties are being developed that use less metal to achieve the same rigidity and strength, and they are said to be cheaper than aluminum and more compatible with existing production lines. The FT reports they are already being used by mass-market brands such as Volkswagen and Hyundai. Hyundai, the only car manufacturer with its own fully integrated steel mill, uses high-tensile steel variants for 50% of the steel in its cars, reducing average vehicle weight by about 10%.
Nevertheless, aluminum seems to be making the most noise at the moment. The UK’s Aluminium Federation recently predicted that by 2020 the global automotive sector will be using 2 million metric tons per year of aluminum in car bodies, engines and drive train components.