A new era of lightweight
automotive manufacturing is being ushered in by tighter fuel
economy standards, emission limits and safety regulations, a
situation that analysts say will only intensify.
New Corporate Average Fuel Economy
(Cafe) rules announced by the Obama administration last spring
will require passenger cars and light trucks to get an overall
average of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016-accelerating by four
years the standard passed by Congress in 2007-compared with
current standards of 27.5 mpg for cars and 23.1 mpg for
For automakers, it is a do-or-die time
to reduce the weight and improve the fuel efficiency of
"The U.S. is pushing these new fuel
economy rules, which are going to be difficult to meet to say
the least. And Europe is no different," said Paul Lacy, manager
of technical research for the Americas at IHS Global Insight
Inc.'s Global Automotive Markets division. All automakers "are
looking at ways to lighten a vehicle without sacrificing
content. The overall objective is not just increasing fuel
economy, but the reduction of carbon dioxide," he said, noting
that the emissions goal is 250 grams of CO2 per mile for a
vehicle fleet by 2016.
Steel and aluminum producers, in
particular, are expected to play a continued role in that
objective. A Ducker Worldwide LLC report predicts that the
average curb weight of a vehicle will decline to 3,500 pounds
by 2020, with at least 400 pounds of older steels being
replaced with new steels and aluminum in the body, closures,
bumpers, wheels, subframes and suspensions.
Steel and aluminum, however, will still
face a bumpy road to 2020 and beyond, analysts cautioned. Price
volatility will continue to complicate real-world applications
of both metals due to the time lag between project development
and commercial production in the auto industry, according to
Edgardo Gelsomino, metals manager at Metal Bulletin Research
(MBR). "This means that car makers need to decide materials
several years in advance, so they find it difficult to develop
applications for a metal when there is uncertainty about the
future price," he said.
Steel and aluminum also are expected to
face increased competition from alternative materials, such as
plastics, composites and foam. Soy foam, for example, has
already made its way into the interior roof covers of the 2010
Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner, offering a 25-percent weight
Composites also are getting stronger,
according to Kimberley Leppold, senior metals analyst at MBR.
In fact, she predicts that if costs work out, composites could
challenge steel and aluminum's position in the industry.
"If I were a metal producer, I would be
a little worried," said John O'Dell, senior editor at Edmunds
GreenCarAdvisor.com. "I'm going to lose some of the market for
my core product."
O'Dell said he's seeing a notable
increase in aluminum applications, including in engine
supports, roofs, doors and hoods. He pointed to the 2011
Mercedes-Benz E-Class-due to sport an all-aluminum trunk that's
lighter and easier to design-and Audi AG's revolutionary
lightweight aluminum spaceframe as just two examples of
automakers accepting non-traditional, albeit more expensive,
solutions to reducing vehicle weight. "If you can use less of
it to build parts of a vehicle, you can do some things with
aluminum that you can't do with sheet metal, and you can save
weight," O'Dell said.
Aluminum content in North American
autos reached an all-time high of 8.6 percent of curb weight in
2009 model-year vehicles, according to the Aluminum
Transportation Group (ATG), part of the Aluminum Association.
ATG expects auto aluminum content to increase by 4 to 5 pounds
per vehicle annually and approach 300 pounds per vehicle
worldwide by 2020.
"All major aluminum producers are
active and working together with R&D departments of car and
auto part makers to develop new applications to reduce weight,"
However, steel isn't going to be pushed
out of North American vehicles any time soon, said Amy Bennett,
MBR's senior steel consultant. In 2009, North American light
vehicles still contained 2,163 pounds of flat-rolled and other
steel products, representing more than 57 percent of the 2009
curb weight, according to the Ducker report. At the same time,
the average weight per vehicle decreased more than 4 percent,
or 163 pounds.
The use of advanced high-strength
steels (AHSS), in terms of total body weight of a vehicle, has
increased by more than 4 percent since 2007. The new BMW X6
leads the auto industry with 32 percent of its body structure
and closures manufactured from AHSS, while other new models
with above-average AHSS body content include the new Chevrolet
Traverse, Ford F-150 and Chrysler Town and Country. Some
analysts predict that the use of AHSS, the fastest-growing
automotive material, will increase 10 percent per year through
"There's definitely a viable market out
there for steel producers," Bennett said. "They just have to
continue working closely with auto producers to make sure
they're developing the steels required to meet the auto
O'Dell agreed, but added that "our
definition of steel may change. It may be much thinner
applications of steel sandwiched with other materials to make
composites, but I don't think steel's going to go away."
Jamie Zachary contributed to this