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Fuel standards said plus for aluminum

Keywords: Tags  fuel standards, automotive, aluminum, steel, NHTSA, David Strickland, Mitch Bainwol, Suzy Waite

CHICAGO — Aluminum producers have been preparing for an uptick in demand from automakers ahead of stricter fuel economy standards for vehicles, although some warn that there may be a "watering down" of the 54.5-miles-per-gallon goal.

Aluminum producers have invested heavily in automotive capacity in anticipation of increased demand from the automotive sector, and a number of major automakers have already begun shifting toward the lightweight metal. Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford Motor Co. reportedly is planning on using a predominantly aluminum body for its new F-150 pickup truck, which would lower the weight of each truck by 700 pounds (, July 27), and Auburn Hills, Mich.-based Chrysler Group LLC and Detroit-based General Motors Co. are likely to follow suit in their truck models (, July 30).

Under Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations, automakers’ vehicle fleets must achieve an average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, double that of today’s fuel economy standards. However, there has been speculation that the original goal is too lofty and could be dropped to 40 miles per gallon when the regulations face a mid-term review in 2018, which could put a snag in the aluminum industry’s plans.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) administrator David Strickland acknowledged that "watered-down" fuel economy standards are still a possibility, although he is confident that the technology is available to make fleets lighter and meet the goal, he told attendees at the annual meeting of the Aluminum Association and Aluminum Extruders Council in Chicago.

"We wouldn’t have put out these goals if we didn’t think (achieving) them ... was possible," Strickland said, but added that if the original goal was too lofty, the NHTSA will reassess it in 2018. "That statement’s also true on the other side. If we were too conservative in our estimates and the fleets are progressing faster, we’ll change it, too," he said.

Speculation has already begun that the fuel economy standards will change after the mid-term review. Ducker Worldwide LLC managing director Richard Schultz cautioned attendees that potential headwinds facing the aluminum industry include a "watering down" of the fuel economy standards.

Regardless, the aluminum industry has a very important role in meeting these standards, Strickland said. "As innovations are made and the more we know about aluminum, the cost advantages over (your) competitors will empower you. Keep innovating and keep talking."

Fuel costs are an important factor for consumers. Some 37 percent of consumers polled said their biggest concern is fuel costs and 47 percent said it is urgent that automakers make cars more fuel-efficient, according to Mitch Bainwol, president and chief executive officer of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

A family will save $8,000 in fuel costs over the lifetime of a vehicle under the new standards, a nationwide savings of $1.7 trillion, according to Strickland’s estimates. "That’s significant savings," he said.

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