Cars have to be twice as fuel-efficient in a little more than a decade, and that has automakers scrambling to look at how they can make them lighter.
Steel accounts for about 60 percent of the weight of the average vehicle, and that has steelmakers worried. Beer cans, after all, were once forged from steel, but are now almost always aluminum.
Automakers have been considering aluminum and other lighter metals as a way to meet tougher federal fuel-efficiency standards, which will have to an average of 54.5 mph in 2025.
European automakers already have rolled out two cars with aluminum frames: the Audi A8 and the Jaguar XJ. Rumors have been swirling that the Ford F150 will have a mostly aluminum body as soon as next year.
An aluminum-based F150 would be a blow to the steel industry, since the pickup has been the best-selling truck in United States for more than 30 years and the best-selling vehicle in America for more than 20 years, steel industry analyst Charles Bradford said.
But steelmakers have been fighting against the prospect of cars made from aluminum, carbon fiber or other lightweight metals. Engineers, including those at ArcelorMittal's global research and development center in East Chicago, have been designing higher strength grades of steel and designs for lighter automotive parts. ArcelorMittal already is making some of the higher grades of steel needed to cut down on vehicle weight at its Indiana Harbor plant.
"There are many automotive markets where federal regulations are driving automakers crazy, and the technology is significantly changing so they can meet the doubled standards 10 to 12 years from now," said Lawrence Kavanagh, president of the Steel Market Development Institute, a joint effort by major steelmakers to promote the use of steel. "It's going to require a confluence of advances for steel to stay competitive."
ArcelorMittal recently designed a new car door that is 27 percent lighter. Engineers affiliated with the Steel Market Development Institute also have been working on trimming the weight of other automotive parts such as as fuel tanks and control arms.
Industry experts believe they have designed enough lightweight auto components to ensure carmakers can meet the looming fuel efficiency standards, said ArcelorMittal's Blake Zuidema, director of global research and development for automotive product applications.
ArcelorMittal's S-in motion research program has devised ways to shave more than 10 percent off of the overall weight of vehicles. That weight reduction, along with expected technological improvements in power trains, should be enough for most vehicles to reach the fuel efficiency standards, Zuidema said.
Major steelmakers are pursuing multiple research initiatives aimed at helping cars get more miles per gallon, said David Anderson, senior director for the Steel Market Development Institute's automotive technical and long products program. His organization has assisted with new designs for more lightweight front lower control arms, rear twist beams and other automotive parts.
Researchers are trying to come up with design solutions that can be broadly applied to a wide range of car makes and models. Steel companies such as ArcelorMittal have been sharing their lightweight component designs free of charge with automotive engineers, in the hope that they will incorporate the engineering solutions into future models of their vehicles.
Automakers been using steel since assembly lines rolled out the first T-Model Fords, and they would have to make major capital investments if they wanted to switch metals now, Kavanagh said.
Large magnets are used to move around the steel inside automotive plants, and aluminum won't stick to those magnets. Automakers would have to install new equipment, and retrain their workers.
Steel has other advantages, such as that it's cheaper, stronger and safer, Zuidema said. Higher grades of steel are five to six times stronger than the strongest aluminum.
"Where steel really excels is strength, and that's a retirement with side impact beams for when there's a vehicle ramming into your passenger door," he said.
Consumers also might perceive steel-framed vehicles as safer, since it's a tougher metal, Zuidema said. They might feel less comfortable driving vehicles with frames made from lighter metals, and fear that they couldn't withstand the the force of crashes.
"From a personal standpoint as a car consumer, the perception has always been that cars are made safe, durable and able to stand up to the abuse I put them through," Zuidema said. "I associate those things with steel, not with the aluminum that's used to make beverage cans that I can crush with two fingers."
Another issue is that aluminum is a pricier commodity than steel, Kavanagh said. Both of the luxury sedans with aluminum frames have sticker prices of more than $70,000, and switching metals would add an estimated $1,500 to the price of a Ford F150.
Replacement parts also would be more expensive to the consumer, and that likely would result in both bigger repair bills and higher insurance costs, Kavanagh said.