The battle for market share continues to rage in the
automotive arena. But smaller vehicles might have a bigger,
near-term impact on metal producers than new alternative power
trains, industry insiders suggest.
Whether a steel zealot or an aluminum ally, chances are that
producers are seeing less metal go into the average car or
truck. And that's true even if the overall marketshare of a
specific metal is holding ground or even gaining slightly.
In fact, the big question might not be what metals go into
the current generation of hybrids, because their materials
make-up isn't necessarily radically different from traditional
cars and trucks. Instead, the real issue might be what metals
(or plastics and composites) next-generation vehicles such as
General Motor Corp.'s plug-in electric Chevrolet Volt will
ultimately settle on, some metal executives said.
For steel bar producers, hybrids currently on the road don't
look very different from vehicles powered by traditional
gasoline engines, according to executives at special bar
quality steel producer Gerdau Macsteel, Jackson, Mich. "The
hybrids that are on the ground are pretty much business as
usual," said Dick Grimes, Gerdau Macsteel's manager of
technical service and product development. "The axle doesn't
really know whether it's being driven by a hybrid, a
hybrid-electric or a diesel."
The crux of the problem isn't really a potential threat from
alternative metals in hybrids, it's how to deal with the
consumer shift away from big pickups and sport utility vehicles
(SUVs) toward smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, company
executives said. While a truck or SUV might contain about 350
pounds of parts made from steel bar, a car might have only 250
pounds, they said.
"We are feeling more pressure from the downsizing. If you
don't buy the (Chevrolet) Tahoe (SUV) and you buy the (Toyota)
Corolla or Prius, that's where we lose more significantly,"
Even aluminum-steel's biggest rival in the auto metals
sector-is feeling the heat from the rapid shift to smaller cars
Today, the average car contains about 9 percent or about 327
pounds of aluminum. That number is expected to grow to 10.5
percent within the next five years, according to Doug Richman,
vice president of engineering and technology at Kaiser Aluminum
Corp., Foothill Ranch, Calif. He noted that aluminum has
surplanted cast iron in 90 percent of cylinder heads and 60
percent of engine blocks, but automakers are downsizing to
smaller, more fuel-efficient engines. That means vehicles that
had eight-cylinder engines are going down to six, and those
that had six-cylinder engines, to four.
"The mass of the block is being downsized," Richman said.
"If it weren't for new applications, the percentage of aluminum
could be lower next year."
Even so, aluminum continues to gain traction in other
applications, especially in body closures like hoods, trunk
lids and tailgates, Richman said. The lightweight metal also is
seeing strong growth in cast or forged aluminum control arms
and in structures such as instrument panel and radiator
supports, engine cradles and bumpers. That's in part because
new fuel-economy regulations have created a greater need for
lightweight structures than ever before, especially to offset
the heavy weight of hybrid batteries, he said.
Switching from steel to aluminum has always been a
cost-benefit decision, and with the cost of operating a
vehiclerising, the equation is tilting in aluminum's favor,
Richman said. "Aluminum is the natural ally of motion."
But it's hardly time for the aluminum industry to pop the
champagne cork and declare victory over steel, he said. "It's
not like aluminum is going to be 25 percent of the vehicle.
Ferrous products are the dominant material, and we don't
anticipate that's going to change in the next five to 10
years." Aluminum marketers might like to paint a rosier
picture, but the holy grail-the high-volume aluminum-intensive
body-is "not around the corner," Richman said.
Steel is most threatened by alternatives in closures such as
trunks and hoods-if original equipment manufacturers are
willing to pay the high price penalty for alternative metals,
said Jody Shaw, manager of technical marketing and product
research at U.S. Steel Corp., Pittsburgh.
At the moment, however, the industry is perhaps more focused
on what metals next-generation alternative vehicles like the
Chevrolet Volt and concept hydrogen fuel cell cars like the GM
Sequel and the Honda FCX Clarity will use. The Volt makes heavy
use of plastics while the Sequel and the Clarity prototypes
employ a lot of aluminum, Shaw said. When the Volt goes into
full production, he speculated that the vehicle likely will use
a steel body structure with plastic or composite skin
Many concept vehicles-including GM's first electric car, the
EV1-have used alternative materials in the concept stage
because a material like plastic makes sense for low volumes.
But if and when a prototype enters large-scale production,
steel tends to win out, Shaw said. "In doors, chassis and body,
steel certainly performs much better than aluminum," in part
because the auto industry for decades developed its
manufacturing process primarily around steel stampings.
Bracing for the coming hybrid revolution, the steel industry
isn't taking anything for granted. Producers are keeping their
eyes open for new opportunities, Shaw said. A traditional
gasoline engine might be larger than an electric engine, but it
also is largely hollow and much less dense. And while an
electric motor might be smaller, it presents opportunities for
materials such as steel motor laminates, which can be used to
If the nation were to switch to hydrogen-powered cars, steel
also would have a good opportunity thanks to all of the steel
pipelines and tanks that would be needed to move hydrogen to
filling stations and to store it, Shaw said.
Magnesium also expects to get in on the action as new
fuel-economy deadlines creep nearer, according to Cameron F.
Tissington, vice president of sales and marketing at US
Magnesium LLC, Salt Lake City, Utah. "We're certainly in
contact with all the players in the industry here in the United
States," he said. "And we've seen a lot of interest because of
CAFE (corporate average fuel economy standards)."
While interest in magnesium has been policy driven in the
United States, it has been rooted more in performance in
Europe, he said. Daimler AG, Stuttgart, Germany, builds
vehicles with magnesium gear boxes, and some BMW AG vehicles
come equipped with aluminum-magnesium bi-metal engines. "We do
find that things that happen in Europe and are proven,
eventually find application here in North America," Tissington
But the problem to date is cost. "A magnesium engine block
is going to cost more than a cast iron or even aluminum block,"
he said. "In many cases, you're going to pay a premium for
weight savings." And that means the chances of a cost-benefit
analysis coming down in favor of magnesium aren't high for
mass-production vehicles in North America. But there are
obvious exceptions in components where die-casting can reduce
total part costs, such as in instrument panel support beams and
front-end radiator assemblies, Tissington said.
"Right now, we're not seeing a lot of new applications
coming down the pipeline," he said. "It doesn't mean the
interest isn't out there, but it will be a number of years for
the new CAFE standards to make an impact." MICHAEL