Automakers have their pick of routes to the future

Nov 01, 2008 | 05:18 AM |

When it comes to hybrid cars and trucks, new technologies don't always mean a drastic change in the metals used to make them, according to auto industry insiders. While some analysts and metal industry partisans see a revolution in the making, the auto industry's response might be not so fast.

Ford Motor Co., Dearborn, Mich., builds both its Escape and Escape Hybrid sport utility vehicles (SUVs) off the same platform, Matthew Zaluzec, manager of Ford's Materials and Nanotechnology Department, said. "As built, there are no differences in these two vehicles except for the fact that we've added the electric powertrain (to the hybrid)."

In the future, the company's hybrid electric vehicles will use the latest lightweight technologies—with engineers working with both ultra- and advanced high-strength steels, as well as aluminum and magnesium, he said. "Our product development design staff is looking at lightweight steel, aluminum and magnesium for closures .?.?. as lightweight enablers."

"Closures" refer to vehicle parts such as doors and hoods. Because of the heavy batteries required for hybrids, automakers often look to offset weight elsewhere in the vehicle—and big parts like trunks and hoods are an obvious place to start.

Ford also is looking to lightweight vehicles with cast aluminum alloys for engine blocks and cylinder heads, and is working with "next-generation" cast iron materials such as compacted graphite iron. "This class of cast iron takes advantage of the material's higher strength, excellent mechanical and fatigue properties and higher operating temperature capability," Zaluzec said.

Cast iron was the metal of choice for engine blocks and cylinder heads through the early 1980s. Aluminum cylinder heads, introduced in the early '80s, are now used in 98 percent of Ford vehicles, while aluminum blocks, which started to replace cast iron in the early 1990s, are used in about 65 percent of Ford's engines.....

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