By 2012 the use of aluminum in automobiles could reach record highs, the Aluminum Association reports. The organization cited a Ducker Worldwide survey that shows North American automakers will increase their use of aluminum 53% to 500 pounds by 2025.
Fuel-economy standards in the United States are forcing carmakers to seek lighter-weight materials for production. Aluminum is seen as one of the steel industry's most formidable challengers in the race to produce fuel-efficient vehicles.
Steelmakers have led the way to vehicle-mass reduction with advanced high-strength steels. These steel grades feature the strength characteristics of traditional steel but are easier to form and lighter than other older versions.
But the Aluminum Association, which represents U.S. and foreign-based aluminum producers, says aluminum can replace more than twice as much weight as steel. Alcoa Inc. marketing director Randall Scheps touted the Ducker findings as a sign that "aluminum's time has come" as a major player in new vehicle designs.
Aluminum certainly has weight advantages over steel, but the material's cost and lack of familiarity within the auto industry are still challenges for the industry, says Jay Baron, president and CEO of Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. In many instances, automakers' plants are more equipped to handle steel than aluminum.
"We like steel in the auto industry because we've been using it forever, we know how to form it, and it's magnetic," Baron says.
The magnetic qualities of steel allow the auto plants to use magnets for material-handling purposes, Baron says. Automakers also are more familiar with how to weld steel than aluminum, he says.
Aluminum also poses corrosion issues if an aluminum part touches a steel component in the vehicle, Baron says.
Perhaps the greatest advantage steel has over aluminum is cost. Aluminum can be two to three times more costly than steel, Baron says.
That cost can be offset, though, by cost savings from downsized components, the Aluminum Association contends.
"Downweighting is actually an enabler of cost savings across the vehicle by accommodating downsized powertrains and parts consolidation -- all without sacrificing safety or performance," said Scheps in a prepared statement. "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 fuel-efficient manner."
Aluminum has been used primarily in powertrain and wheel applications, but it's gaining market share in body applications, including hoods, trunks and doors, the Aluminum Association reports. General Motors Co. leads all North American automakers in aluminum content with 366 pounds per vehicle, according to the Ducker survey.