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 trucks.
For automakers, it is a do-or-die time to reduce the weight and improve the fuel efficiency of passenger vehicles.
"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 savings.
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," Gelsomino said.
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 2020.
"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 industry's needs."
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." DARCY KEITH
Jamie Zachary contributed to this story.