Ford has replaced steel with aluminum in the body of the top-selling F-150, and now General Motors is looking to follow suit by putting more of the lighter and costlier metal in its own pickups.
New federal regulations require vehicles to be twice as fuel-efficient by 2025, which is pressuring automakers to cut weight. Steelmakers say they are focusing on preserving their longstanding business with the auto industry, one of the biggest customers supplied by Northwest Indiana mills.
The market is sizable: automakers received 26 percent of all steel shipments last year, according to the American Iron and Steel Institute.
U.S. Steel CEO Mario Longhi said in the company's most recent quarterly earnings conference call that the industry should not be deterred by setbacks, such as Ford's decision to lighten the F-150 by 700 pounds by switching the body to the lighter material also used to wrap leftovers and form beer cans.
"It doesn't surprise me, as aluminum has been working hard at it for quite a bit of time; maybe we had a little bit of a slower start in a broader manner," he said. "We are certainly tackling it right now. I think steel has tremendous capabilities."
U.S. Steel is developing several new grades of advanced high-strength steel and working with automakers to design lighter parts made with steel, Longhi said. Engineers are revising automotive designs to incorporate new grades that are stronger, so they do not require as much steel to provide motorists with the same protection.
"Aluminum moves quicker in a certain area, and we move quicker in some other areas," he said. "As I mentioned, we have got some very interesting contracts. We're continuing to lightweight and we're broadening the capability for development quite significantly. So this is just a point in time in this battle."
Advanced high-strength steel typically goes into the body and unexposed parts that tend to account for the most weight. Steel, whether traditional or high-strength, accounted for about 58 percent of the average light vehicle on the road in North America.
"It's a combination of just being able to replace a heavier steel with a more efficient steel and also be able to participate in the new designs that create opportunities for different combinations of what exists and what is coming out," Longhi said.
"So it's really a lot of different alternatives that are being looked at, and really steel is a big deal for the automakers. It's pretty promising what we see coming out of our labs today."
Long used in engine and powertrain casings, aluminum currently accounts for about 8.6 percent of the weight of an average light vehicle. The overall steel content is expected to remain at around 60 percent despite aluminum's gains in heavy-duty pickup trucks, where the lighter metal can achieve greater weight savings.
Flat-rolled sheet steel, for instance, makes up 1,012 pounds of the 1,056 pounds of the body of the average light vehicle today, ArcelorMittal USA CEO Michael Rippey said during a recent American Iron and Steel Institute conference call with reporters.
"While there is strong materials competition in automotive, advanced high-strength steel is the fastest-growing automotive material and most 'lightweghting' is in fact done with steel," he said.
Many of the new steel grades and manufacturing techniques have been developed through the international project FutureSteelVehicle, launched in 2011. Many of those innovations are already on the road two years later, even though the typical auto design cycle runs four to five years, Rippey said.