It’s never been a more exciting time to step foot outside, and it’s not just because the COVID-19 pandemic is abating. I am also encouraged by the convergence of innovation I see along Interstate 90 each day. The safest, most technologically advanced passenger vehicles ever built maneuver in and out of traffic, changing the way we all think about transportation and its role in our daily lives.
Within that sea of engineering innovation, underneath the paint, dynamic change is underway. More than one million aluminum-intensive vehicles are sold each year with more and more vehicles offered in hybrid and electric variants, including America’s hardest-working pickup trucks and SUVs. In 2020, more than 30 vehicle platforms boast more than 500 pounds of aluminum content each.
Consumers and governments want safer and greener transportation options with improved performance at an affordable price, demanding a design approach that includes durable yet low-weight, high-value materials. As automakers look for these solutions, you can bet they're turning to aluminum.
President Biden’s goal to position America as a global leader in electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing is clear. As a nation, the U.S. EV market lags other developed countries. However, the growth in recent years signals a greener future for all. According to new data from Pew Research, nearly 1.8 million EVs were registered in the U.S. last year, soaring from fewer than 300,000 in 2016. And it is projected future EVs will rely on an aluminum architecture to enable safety, value and performance.
DuckerFrontier estimates that by 2026 the industry will reach 514 pounds of aluminum per vehicle (PPV) and by 2030, 570 PPV is expected. While the use of automotive aluminum is already at a record high, this 24% increase by 2030 will be due, in large part, to the expected onslaught of electrified powertrain and BEV platforms coming. As these electric vehicles hit showrooms, we’re going to see growing use of aluminum extrusions and high-pressure aluminum diecast parts in applications like battery housings, motor housings and body structural components, along with continued growth of sheet in body-in-white and closure parts.
Use of aluminum to design sustainable vehicles helps the transportation industry support decarbonization. In partnership with leading automakers, aluminum producers are implementing closed-loop recycling systems to allow OEMs to tap an endlessly renewable supply of recycled aluminum and use more high recycled content in their vehicle designs. Closed-loop recycling not only decreases the environmental impact of manufacturing operations and products, but also provides supply chain security for automakers.
Although aluminum in end-of-life (EOL) vehicles is already recovered and recycled at a rate of 95%, according to the Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Center for Resource Recovery and Recycling, access to increased levels of recycled secondary aluminum is expected as more automakers adopt closed-loop recycling, and as the first mass-produced aluminum-intensive vehicles, like the Ford F-150 and Expedition, begin to reach EOL. The oncoming wave of aluminum auto body sheet scrap entering the market over the next decade for recycling and reuse in new vehicle platforms supports the aluminum industry’s commitment to help OEMs meet net-zero carbon goals and tackle climate change through low carbon material solutions.
Innovation dominates the race to a greener, more connected, automated, and shared mobility future. While all materials will come together in the vehicles of tomorrow, one thing remains certain: aluminum remains an essential part of the mix. No other current material offers the design flexibility and sustainability that aluminum does. Next time you’re at a stoplight, look around. While not easy to spot with the naked eye, aluminum abounds, and its continued market penetration will spark a new wave of sustainable mobility options for American consumers.
Mike Keown is CEO of Commonwealth Rolled Products, where he oversees the vision and growth of the company. Mr. Keown also serves as the interim chair of the Aluminum Association’s Aluminum Transportation Group (ATG).
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