Ford has come up with a new Lightweight Concept car that makes greater use of aluminum and other alternative metals, but company officials say the automaker isn't giving up on steel.
"We're still a huge steel user and will be for a long time," said Joe Hinrichs, executive vice president and president of the Americas at Ford.
Ford is building more on its design for the aluminum-bodied F-150, which is 700 pounds lighter to improve mileage and meet tough new federal fuel-efficiency standards. The Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker is experimenting with different materials — including recycled soda bottles and even tomato fiber — to get its fleet to the average of 54.5 miles per gallon that is mandated by 2025.
The automaker's new Lightweight Concept cuts the weight of a 2013 Fusion by 25 percent, effectively making a full-size sedan weigh as much as a compact Ford Fiesta. The demonstration vehicle, which Ford says potentially could be produced at high volume, uses more aluminum, chemically toughened glass, magnesium, carbon fiber and ultra-high strength steel.
"There's lots of new technologies out there in boron and high-strength steel, but also in aluminum to be able to take weight out," Hinrichs said. "We're showcasing what we can do with lightweighting. What that means for all of our plants is Ford continues to intend to be a leader in fuel efficiency with all our new models, and we have a number of enabling technologies to make that happen, including taking weight out of our new vehicles. We want to take weight out of our new platforms whenever we do new vehicles."
New Ford models often have smaller engines, replacing V8s with lighter and lower-horsepower EcoBoost engines. They also often include parts made with more lightweight metals than the steel that is forged in Northwest Indiana mills.
"The new Mustang has an aluminum fender," Hinrichs said. "It always had an aluminum hood, but now it has an aluminum fender."
Ford has been experimenting with new metals, alloys and composites for more than 25 years. The adoption of more alternate metals threatens steel, which historically accounts for about 60 percent of the weight of the average vehicle. About 20 percent of the steel made in the United States is for the automotive sector, and the local mills in Northwest Indiana count automakers as some of their largest customers.
"We're material-agnostics," spokesman Chris Preuss said.
Aluminum has been making inroads on steel's market share. A recent study commissioned by the Aluminum Association found the use of aluminum sheet for vehicle bodies could increase from 200 million pounds last year to as much as 4 billion pounds by 2025.
The lighter metal has not been widely adopted outside of luxury brands thus far because it is three times more expensive than steel. Analysts believe, on the mass market, aluminum sheet is most likely to be used more in the bodies of bigger vehicles like pickup trucks, where it can shave the most weight.
Automakers still need advanced high-strength steel to help meet their fuel-efficiency targets, Hinrichs said.
"A lot of technological advances have been made in high-strength steel," he said. "It will continue to be part of the solution set because there's a need for steel in the vehicle, and there's a cost advantage. There's weight savings advantages to those who come up with new ideas.The frame of F-150 is still made with high-strength steel and that's a weight advantage. We're still a big customer of steel."