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Mixed-material vehicles to dominate: expert

Keywords: Tags  Center for Automotive Research, Jay Baron, Aluminum Association, automotive, cars, market share, steel, high-strength steel aluminum

FARMINGTON, Pa. — While aluminum may be making inroads on steel in the automotive sector, the vehicle of the future will be a mix of materials rather than one dominated by either steel or aluminum, according to one auto industry expert.

A mixed-material vehicle will probably sport very-high-strength steels around its "safety cage," aluminum in the chassis and exterior panels, and composites in brackets and engine mounts, said Jay Baron, president and chief executive officer of the Center for Automotive Research, Ann Arbor, Mich. Joining technologies will become much more complex as a result, he said.

"The mixed-material vehicle is the goal and seems to be the trend," Baron said at the Aluminum Association’s annual meeting in Farmington, Pa. But that’s not a message a "defiant" steel industry wants to hear, he said. "Steel says we can do it at zero cost. ... And we really don’t need to convert anything."

The shift toward alternative materials—high-strength steels, aluminum, magnesium or composites—comes not thanks to a push by one industry but instead because of more-stringent fuel economy requirements, Baron said. "The game is changing because of the regulators. Business as usual is not going to be tolerated. We see legislative mandates as the dominant influence in the auto industry ... through 2025."

Steel, the "incumbent, dominant material," is fighting hard to defend its market share, particularly against aluminum, Baron said. "The steel industry is your biggest competitor," he told conference attendees. "And the steel guys are very concerned. ... Aluminum is the upcoming guy and gaining market share in the car every year."

Composites are a distant third, offering big opportunities in the future but unlikely to make significant inroads for years because of high costs and supply chain issues, Baron said. Magnesium faces similar challenges, he said. Aluminum, in contrast, does not. "If you are used to steel, you can readily convert ... to aluminum."

But as aluminum and steel fight for market share they should avoid getting bogged down in debates over which material is better based on a life-cycle analysis (LCA), Baron said. LCA has little appeal to an auto industry hoping to avoid adding to an already heavy regulatory burden, he said. "I’ve never heard a car company say that they want to look at life-cycle analysis. LCA really comes down to the assumptions you make. ... And there is no clear-cut winner."

The auto industry has exceeded fuel emission requirements to date and should be able to meet them through 2020 by light-weighting and other technologies, he said. But even light-weighting has its limits. Even given efforts to light-weight vehicles, automakers will struggle to meet 2025 emission requirements which appear unrealistic without consumers switching to electric vehicles, an unlikely development given current sales patterns—a subject automakers likely will bring up with regulators as emission policies are reviewed, he said.

Electrification, if it is to succeed, will require new infrastructure and government incentives, something that to date has proven "irregular and unpredictable in the U.S.," Baron said.

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