The face of automobiles is ever changing and each new invention adds a new dimension to the industry. What started out with horse-drawn carriages has led to horse-power battles where every maker is fighting for supremacy. Although steel had been the preferred choice for automobiles, to enhance the speed and dexterity of the automobiles, aluminium is being used in cars for years now. The light metal is great for weight reduction purposes, especially in sleek sports and high-end luxury cars. The inclusions started out small, like replacing the cast iron cylinder blocks with aluminium. As time passed, aluminium seeped into wheels, transmission casings moving onto cylinder heads and suspension joints. Now it is entering the mainstream vehicles replacing steel in a number of applications.
A prime reason for this accelerated use of aluminium in vehicles in recent times is the strict environmental restrictions by major countries. The EU regulation demands a fleet average of 130 grams of CO2 per kilometer by 2015, the phasing in of the regulation has begun in 2012 while the 2022’s target of 95 grams per kilometer will begun phase-in by 2021. In U.S., according to a statement released by the White House in 2012, new regulations will be aiming to double the fuel efficiency to 54.5 miles per gallon, effective from 2017. Till 2016, the previous standards of 35.5 mpg for cars and light trucks will be applicable for Model Years 2011-2016.
These standards are steep by all standards and owing to the fact that a majority of auto-makers emerge from either US or the European regions, they have been looking for alternatives for a long time in a bid to reduce the weight of the vehicles and in turn increase the fuel economy and lower the carbon emission. The reason aluminium is even more appealing to the environmentalist is because of its high recyclability.
Automakers like Jaguar for example has agreed to a closed-loop recycling process sending their scrap to Novelis, their body sheet supplier, where the processed and end-of-life scrap will be recycled and turned back into alloy sheets used for the car’s body. Cars like Audi A8 and Jaguar XJ have also made extensive use of the lighter metal, one using an aluminium frame while the other using aluminium sheet extensive monocoque body. Mercedes too has come up with its new SL, with a body made almost entirely out of aluminium, Lexus is planning to use more of aluminium in its new RX line of SUVs, Porsche has been using aluminium for a long time and sports cars have been using it for even longer.
Now the question is if aluminium has such desirable qualities and so many cars have used the metal intensively, why has the Ford’s all aluminium F-150, 2015 ruffled so many feathers? Well for starters, all of the above cars are considered more of luxury cars while the Ford’s all aluminium F-150 pick-up is a working man’s car – a car that accounts for a big chunk of Ford’s profits. In 2014 alone, 764,402 F-Series pick ups were sold, 18% higher than last year making it the top-selling vehicle line in the US for the 32nd straight year. When dealing with a vehicle with such intimidating statistics, one can’t help but think about the ripple effect such a major shift is going to cause.
Ford insists that the military-grade aluminium body used in the pick-up is actually stronger than the steel version when exposed to everyday bumps and dents; however the customers are the ones that need to be convinced before they can make the big shift. Ford is taking a big risk by completely overhauling the design of the best-loved and most-sold pick up truck in the U.S. Not just time and reputation, the company has invested million to make elaborate alterations to its two truck building factories for the steel-to-aluminium transition costing the company 90,000 lost units of production. The anticipation of the new car meant a lot of people refrained from buying resulting in a 3.5% drop in sales in the fourth quarter of 2014.
While Ford has invested millions in preparing its manufacturing units for aluminium construction, Ford dealers for collision shops have also had to make lump-sum investments in terms of special tools and technician-trainings in aluminium techniques. A single dealership like Prestige Ford, Texas, invested $56,000 to buy equipment like special rivet gun, a vacuum for aluminium dust, a toolbox and floor-to-ceiling vinyl curtains to capture dust. Ford has offered many discounts and offers for these repair shops encouraging them to make the shift to aluminium repairing or at least include it in their services. Many have shown hesitation in accepting the aluminium-repair world as not only does it require special tools, it needs a separate space since aluminium and steel repairs cannot be done in the same place, as they contaminate each other, meaning more investment.
The point is, is the risk worth it? All these investments and the sheer volumes of people involved in the transition will be completely wasted if the Ford F-150 2015 falls flat. On the flipside is the fact that pick-up buyers are a conservative lot who still look at aluminium as ‘beer-can’ material, not strong or durable enough for heavy-duty applications. Then there is the higher costs and higher repair expenses. Even the oil-prices at the time are low, dampening the F-150’s fuel-efficiency edge. Many truck drivers and owners however, believe in fuel efficiency irrespective of the current fuel prices.
On the upside, many people are intrigued by the new technologies included in the car, along with the sleek new design and a radical appeal. Ford too is going the extra-mile and more to promote the new beast and all its new features with the assurance of a powerful performance. Considering the positive reception it is getting, chances are, the odds will tilt in favor of the aluminium innovation which raises another, perhaps a more important question – What does the future hold?
Let us browse through a few interesting data brought about by the Ducker Worldwide 2015 North American Light Vehicle Aluminum Content Study:
- Pickup trucks will contain the most aluminum at 548.9 lbs. per vehicle, followed closely by E Segment sedans at 546.9 lbs., SUVs at 410.3 lbs. and minivans at 396.5 lbs. All other segments will be below the average content of 394 pounds per vehicle.
- The total aluminum content for the 17.46 million vehicles of expected production will equal nearly 7 billion pounds. Body and closure parts will be 11% of the total.
- Total North American light vehicle aluminum consumption will increase by 28% in 2015 over 2012.
- Consumption will surpass all records set in previous decades by one billion pounds.
- More than 500,000 pickup trucks and EV’s (a combined total) will have complete aluminum bodies, and have a content of over 500 million pounds of aluminum.
Within the Decade:
- Seven out of 10 new pickup trucks produced in North America will be aluminum-bodied.
- Every leading automaker will have an aluminum body program in place.
- The total North American aluminum content will be 10 billion pounds.
- Globally, light vehicle aluminum content will approach 35 billion pounds, making light vehicles the most important global market for aluminum.
These statistics say that aluminium is here to stay and chances are, both blue collar and white collar vehicle owners will go green with new aluminium-automotive revolution.