Personal transportation hasn’t undergone a transition of this magnitude since the creation of the automobile. Everything we read now discusses the push toward battery electric vehicles (BEVs), investments in new battery manufacturing, retooling plants for electric architectures, and a constant stream of new EV releases.
Of course, the history of the car in the United States has undergone change with significant technological advancement but, until recently, each generation of new vehicles have had the same base propulsion system. And while ICEs aren’t going away just yet, automakers have made it clear they’ve heard the public and are pushing forward with electric powertrains, predominantly BEVs. So, the members of the aluminum industry asked an important question, “How does aluminum fit into the BEV picture?”
We all wish it was possible to predict the exact future, but, in reality, data-driven research offers the best insights into how we can prepare for what comes next. To better understand the situation and quantify aluminum’s value in future BEVs, the U.S. Aluminum Association commissioned a study conducted by FEV Consulting—“The Value of Aluminum Light Weighting in Battery Electric Vehicles”—to determine the impact that expected advancements in battery and electric powertrain technologies will have on the economic benefits of using aluminum to reduce mass.
To represent a significant cross section of today’s vehicles, the study identified and evaluated three four-door vehicle classes: 1) a city vehicle, 2) a family crossover, and 3) a pickup truck. Considering current trends—aluminum weight reduction magnitude and cost, aluminum application, consumer BEV range and performance expectations, and battery and powertrain cost and efficiency—the study determined that for all three vehicle classes, increasing aluminum content from the baseline configuration resulted in a reduction in overall vehicle cost. It also confirmed aluminum mass reduction will remain economically attractive to vehicle manufacturers, even as battery and electric powertrain cost and efficiency improve over the current decade.
The findings of the study also reaffirm multi-material vehicles will continue into the electric era. No vehicle is entirely made of a single material. For most automakers it comes down to three choices—aluminum, steel or composites—and each offers a solution to a different design challenge, interlocking seamlessly to complete a perfect scene. Aluminum remains an integral part of the picture, in both current and future mixed material vehicles, offering mass reduction in an infinitely recyclable package that can help offset battery weight to improve overall vehicle performance, cost and environmental impact.
BEVs paint a new vision of our future, one with a mind for sensible environmental consciousness and an appetite to redefine the notion of personal motorized transportation. And by dreaming of what could be, we lay the groundwork for what is.
Dr. Blake Zuidema is director, automotive technical services at Novelis and technical chair of the Aluminum Association’s Transportation Group.
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