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Autos using more aluminum than ever with still more to come

Automakers are accelerating the shift to aluminum from other materials for new vehicle construction, in the effort to safely and efficiently lower the weight of cars and light trucks, based on a new survey of North American automakers conducted by Ducker Worldwide.
Posted: September 7, 2011 - 8:53PM
Author: Don Bain

Since lighter vehicles get better fuel economy with fewer emissions, the survey found aluminum is already the main material in the engine and wheels while quickly gaining market share in hoods, trunks and doors. It is estimated the average use of aluminum in vehicles will rise from 327 pounds in 2009 to 550 pounds in 2025.

The overall use of aluminum will reach an all-time high of 343 pounds per vehicle in 2012 - up five percent from 327 pounds three years ago. The increase in aluminum usage has continued for nearly 40 years.

As the CAFE requirements create stricter fuel economy regulations, automakers will likely lower the overall weight of vehicles by about 400 pounds each and aluminum's role in the mix is expected to double as use increases.

"This new survey of automakers makes clear that in terms of new vehicle designs to greatly step up fuel economy...aluminum's time has come," said Randall Scheps, Chairman of the Aluminum Association's Aluminum Transportation Group and Marketing Director at Alcoa, Inc. "Cars and trucks will get lighter and more efficient, but thanks to aluminum, they won't have to get smaller or less safe."

"We are fast-entering a transition stage to more holistic vehicle design approaches premised on greater use of lighter, stronger and more crash absorbent aluminum alloys replacing less efficient iron and steel. Vehicles with their size maintained, but down weighted with aluminum are inherently more efficient than heavier ones," said Scheps. "Most importantly in this holistic approach, down-weighting is actually an enabler of cost savings across the vehicle by accommodating downsized powertrains and parts consolidation - all without sacrificing safety or performance. A lighter car can allow for a smaller, less expensive drive train and generate the same performance as the original vehicle...more cost-effectively, safer and most importantly in a more fuel efficient manner."

The aluminum content in bodies, bumpers, doors and hatches grew by 58 percent from 2009 to 2012, with 30 percent of all hoods on 2012 vehicles being aluminum; a savings of 100 million pounds of weight across the fleet. Twenty percent of all bumpers in 2012 are expected to be made of the lightweight metal.

"New, stringent federal fuel economy regulations, coupled with consumer angst about high and unstable gas prices, is leading automakers to move quickly with a total rethinking of vehicle design as they also push ahead with alternate power trains, new technologies and advanced materials. In terms of boosting fuel economy and cutting tailpipe emissions, aluminum offers automakers the fastest, safest, most environmentally friendly and cost-effective way to get the job done. Low-density aluminum is a game-changer and automakers are moving quickly to take full advantage of all the consumer benefits it provides," Scheps concluded.

General Motors is the aluminum content leader in North American automakers, with 366 pounds currently used per vehicle on average. Honda leads foreign makes at 10.7 percent of curb weight in aluminum content in 2012.

The use of aluminum in vehicles has increased by roughly seven pounds annually since 1975. Automakers are expected to lessen the weight of the average vehicle by 10 percent by 2012.

The use of Advanced High Strength Steels (AHSS) is also growing, but gauge reduction with AHSS limits weight savings compared to lower density aluminum. Pound for pound, aluminum replaces more than twice as much weight as AHSS.

If you have an empty basement or storage shed, you might consider filling it with crushed aluminum cans. They’re recycling at 72 cents a pound right now and that’s one thing you can count on appreciating.