OSWEGO, NEW YORK—In a tent in rural Oswego, as a freak October snowstorm swirled outside, a Jaguar F-Type sat high and dry inside. The sleek Jag had fenders, hood, doors, roof and structural points all made of lightweight aluminum from industry leader Novelis, which on October 24 cut the ribbon on a $200 million expansion of its automotive business. A company that until recently concentrated on aluminum cans for the beverage industry is revving up its work on cars, big time.
It makes sense. As automakers, pressed by both federal fuel economy and California zero-emission rules, are struggling to green their fleets, lightweight aluminum, steel or composite bodies are an essential part of the mix. Sitting next to the Jaguar was an Audi A8 with an all-aluminum body, and a Lincoln MKT with a hood and liftgate fashioned from the metal. The latest Range Rover is another one with an all-aluminum structure, cutting 926 pounds.
According to Marco Palmieri, president of Novelis North America, “Aluminum is more expensive initially, but it’s cheaper on a lifecycle basis.” An aluminum body might cost an additional $1,000 per car, but it cuts weight by 800 pounds and improves fuel economy 10 percent, Novelis officials said.
That’s critical as automakers aim for 54.5 mpg fleet averages by 2025. And it’s equally as important for electric cars that will need to travel more than 100 miles on a charge before they gain widespread public acceptance. Palmieri said that auto industry use of aluminum is increasing 25 percent a year.
In the new plant, huge cubes of raw aluminum become tightly wound rolls of aluminum sheet, bound for auto plants in Detroit and elsewhere. Part of Novelis’ plan is that the same trucks that take out the big rolls will come back to Oswego in the form of scrap to be reused. Aluminum is infinitely recyclable, one of its big selling points, and this closed-loop process could recover as much as 50 percent of the original material.
The green gains are palpable. While there’s no major American vehicle with an all-aluminum structure, Novelis’ big expansion in upstate New York is a sign that’s about to change. It seems very likely that Ford is shortly to announce an all-aluminum version of the F-150 pickup, America’s most popular vehicle. The company has been denying it, but all signs point to an aluminum truck shaving off 750 pounds or more. And at least one other carmaker is also likely to follow a path that Palmieri says is now most evident in Europe.
Asked for comment, Ford's Mike Levine says, "Ford is already a leader in aluminum use in full-size pickups, from the hood in today's F-150--which has been made of aluminum since 2004--to the lower control arms in the front suspension of our ultimate off-road truck, the F-150 SVT Raptor. We are constantly looking at multiple ways to improve our cars and trucks with innovative technology for better fuel efficiency and capability. It is premature, however, to discuss specific approaches or solutions that we might use for future products."
Novelis’ president and CEO is Phil Martens, a former Ford and Mazda product development chief who’s led the company’s expansion into the automotive business. “We now have, here in Oswego, the capacity to produce 240,000 tons of auto sheet annually on two lines,” Martens said in an interview. “And that’s enough to serve the highest-volume vehicles in America.” Did I mention that the Ford F-150 is the highest-volume vehicle in America?
On a “dollar per pound” basis, Martens said that aluminum is cheaper than the carbon fiber composite that is emerging as its biggest competitor for lightweighting cars. He says that his $1,000-per-car cost compares to $3,000 to $5,000 for other arrows in the automakers’ quiver—including, say, turning a gas-guzzler into a diesel hybrid. (On the other hand, adding a start-stop system that shuts the engine down at stoplights might yield a five percent fuel economy gain, and cost only $400 per car.)
Aluminum costs are likely to go down, and more production facilities locate in the U.S., as a result of the same phenomenon that is driving other manufacturing back to America—cheap natural gas. Aluminum smelting is electricity-intensive, so producers really benefit from power cost cuts.
But that same factor is also helping steel be more competitive. The steel industry vigorously fights any incursion into its market dominance, pointing out that its newer high-strength steel can offer dramatic weight savings, too.
So what about those pesky composites? The BMW i3 electric car, for one, is defying battery weight penalties by deploying an innovative carbon fiber passenger compartment. But, the industry is quick to point out, the i3’s chassis and crash structures are aluminum. There’s no reason the two materials can’t happily co-exist (once some pesky joining problems are solved).
Of course, there’s nothing new about cars with aluminum bodies. The British, for instance, pioneered use of the metal in the hand-formed lightweight vehicles they produced in abundance during the golden age of the English automotive industry. But today aluminum has adapted to fast-paced robotic production.
Carmakers tend to use aluminum sparingly, a hood here and a tailgate there. All-aluminum structures have been seen only in high-end cars like that Audi A8 and the car that Martens thinks points the way forward—the Tesla Model S battery car. “There’s a gigantic resurgence underway in automotive aluminum,” Martens said. “By the end of the decade, we expect that aluminum will have two to three percent of the global market. That’s up from just half of one percent in 2009.”
Here's a closer look on video: