Though it seems to be top of mind for today’s car engineers, the use of aluminum in auto body and engine manufacturing can be traced back to as early as 1899. However, mainstream aluminum use has been minimal until recently.
Limited knowledge of metal working and a high price of the raw materials worked against widespread adoption of aluminum in auto manufacturing. However after WW2, aluminum use in vehicles was revisited due to the lowered cost of the raw material and advances in metal production.
Land Rover built one of the earliest aluminum-based engines in the early ‘60s. The Land Rover V8 was built with aluminum cylinder heads and cylinder block. The engine was originally designed by General Motors and later re-designed and produced by Land Rover in the United Kingdom.[Wikipedia] Aluminum was also used frequently in motor racing, where vehicle weight reduction is paramount to better handling and faster acceleration.
With the dual factors of rising oil prices and EPA regulations, utilizing aluminum for any auto parts – externally and internally – has gained renewed momentum. Weight savings of up to 50% and 90% recyclability escalated research investment in aluminum. Almost all car manufacturers, from Acura to Volvo, use aluminum in some capacity today.
Ford’s F150 aluminum investment.
The 2015 generation of Ford’s most important vehicle, the F-150, features body panels made primarily of aluminum and is an impressive 700 pounds lighter than its steel-manufactured counterparts. Ford President and CEO, Alan Mulally, believes in the future of aluminum in vehicle assembly, stating: “Pound for pound, aluminum is stronger and tougher than steel and [aluminum] will be the material of choice for Ford moving forward.” (Bloomberg News, January 2015)
The news of Ford transforming its legendary truck and sales leader with aluminum panels was however, met with initial skepticism. Some automotive commentators noted that no automaker has ever mass-manufactured vehicles made from aluminum at the levels of production that the F150 requires. Wall St expressed concern about the potential for lower vehicle margins. Truck enthusiasts and loyal F150 owners wondered about durability and how the new-generation vehicle would stand up to tough treatment.
Aluminum body panels and engine blocks can make today’s cars much lighter, resulting in lower fuel consumption. Notwithstanding production costs close to twice that of steel, automakers believe the savings in fuel economy more than justifies investment in aluminum.
None of this has so far dampened consumer demand or enthusiasm, with the F150 selling very strongly since its launch. The vehicle has also been met with positive reviews from auto scribes noting improved fuel economy, rigidity and body control. Insurance premiums for the 2015 aluminum-bodied F-150 have also experienced little or no increase over the 2014 steel model (Automotive News, March 2015).
In future years, we’re likely to see even greater use of aluminum. Jaguar’s upcoming XE midsize sedan will use recycled aluminum in a breakthrough alloy, to shed weight and improve fuel consumption(Go Auto, July 2014). Industry insiders also speculate that the next-generation of Jeep’s iconic Wrangler will feature an aluminum body(GoAuto, October 2014).
Image 1: 2015 Ford F-150 sports an aluminum body (credit: Carlos Osorio/AP)