By on May 1, 2015

General Motors RenCen Signage Circa August 2006

During its announcement of a $5.4-billion investment into its facilities, General Motors hinted at possibly making the switch to aluminum bodies.

Part of the investment would go into the Warren Technical Center in Warren, Mich., where a revamp of its prototype plant would accommodate aluminum, steel, and blended steel/aluminum bodies, The Detroit Bureau reports.

Currently, aluminum has been used on some components and panels for a number of models as the automaker continues its experiments in lightweighting that began with the first Corvette. This is set to change with the upcoming Cadillac CT6, which uses the alloy throughout the majority of the body, while the firewall and floor pan are stamped from steel.

With ever-stringent fuel economy standards looming on the horizon — including the 54.5 mpg fleet fuel economy average set for 2025 — GM may apply aluminum to more of its vehicles to help meet the mandate, as the metal is easier to use than other lightweight materials such as carbon fiber.

However, aluminum is more expensive than steel, which may prompt the automaker to use it on luxury vehicles or on trucks and SUVs, following Ford’s extensive use of aluminum on the new F-150.

Steel, meanwhile, won’t be going away. The steel industry has made gains in developing lighter, stronger alloys, while automakers like GM are using blended sandwich-style body panels to reduce noise.

[Photo credit: Joseph Novak/Flickr/CC BY 2.0]

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36 Comments on “GM Hints At Aluminum Bodies During $5.4B Investment Announcement...”

  • avatar

    “Get that G-D Mercury away from our facade!”

  • avatar

    Nice article Cameron. This is something I follow closely.

  • avatar

    The more aluminum incorporated into vehicle unibody construction, and in fabrication of body panels (what was formerly called “sheet metal”), the higher insurance premiums & cost of collision repair will climb.

    Now, don’t you argue against this claim of mine now, excited fans of the unique properties of aluminum, unless you feel compelled to.

    Instead, let’s revisit this claim in the years that follow as aluminum intensive vehicle damage claims and repair bills begin to trickle in in ever increasing allotments.

    “At first slowly, and then much more quickly, tens of millions of automobile insurance customers cried out in agony, buried in oppressive collision insurance rates!”

    • 0 avatar

      The use of lightweight materials is simply one of the ways we will be paying for CAFE. You think aluminum will raise those costs wait until carbon fiber starts becoming common place.

      • 0 avatar

        How much more is carbon fiber?

        • 0 avatar

          Hard to say how much it will be to repair. The problem is that rather than bending like metals carbon fiber shatters. So a small impact could mean that the carbon fiber fender would need to be replaced while the aluminum one can be roughed back into shape an finished with good old filler (bondo).

        • 0 avatar

          Carbon fiber is very brittle, so it’s very likely you’ll be replacing panels instead of repairing them. That’s got to be more expensive.

          • 0 avatar
            Big Al from Oz

            Currently in the industry I’m in, aviation, it is more economical to effect repairs on composites vs replacement.

            The only area I foresee replacement will be in the structural regions. Even then repair is generally used.

    • 0 avatar

      “The more aluminum incorporated into vehicle unibody construction, and in fabrication of body panels (what was formerly called “sheet metal”), the higher insurance premiums & cost of collision repair will climb.”

      All things being equal yes. However, Ford combined the use of Al panels and a more modular system. So each part cost more, but can both be replaced quicker (lower labor), and has lowered the amount of material needing replaced (lower cost). F150 cost have been pretty constant through the transition so far. So you could apply the same practices to steel construction as well, but let’s be honest, the customer expects rates to go up on a new car. It’s easier to sell them on the same rate they are paying, than to get them to pay more for the vehicle on the promise of a lower insurance rate.

    • 0 avatar

      DW, I want to see the Saturn panels make a comeback.

      • 0 avatar

        How about it! Saturn was the company that shouldn’t have been made, but then when they were, rather than sticking with a good idea, the made it a crapy version of Chevy rather than sticking to their roots, shallow as they were.

  • avatar

    No thanks, GM/Chevy has already convinced me that I want HIGH STRENGTH STEEL. Aluminum isn’t manly or cool enough.

  • avatar

    There are no “lighter” steel alloys. Steels run from 0.283 to 0.289 lb/in^3, in other words variation among steel alloys is insignificant.

    High strength alloys allow certain components to be made lighter, but for other components offer no advantage. For instance, the modulus of elasticity of steel is 3,000,000 psi no matter the alloy. So for components where stiffness not strength is important, the use of high strength steel probably won’t offer the potential for weight savings. For components where yield or tensile strength is the key factor, high strength steel offers the possibility to reduce the total amount of steel, thus reducing weight of the structure, while retaining the same strength.

    Truthfully, I would expect that the cost of repairs would rise, then decrease, as three factors come into play: first, repair shops will learn how to work with aluminum body panels and the investments they have to make will start getting paid off; second, as more repair shops become qualified to work with Al, there will be multiple alternatives for the customer and competition; and third, auto manufacturers will develop lower-cost methods of joining and forming, much of which will also translate into repair methods. Such lower cost methods would be desirable for the automakers as they gradually push aluminum panels into lower cost vehicles. For example, if the early higher cost cars use adhesive bonding, but they later develop a low cost reliable spot welding method, it would also become less expensive for repairs too.

    I think the vehicle with lots of Al will probably always be more costly to buy and to do body repairs than the all-steel vehicle. TANSTAAFL, y’all.

  • avatar
    Ron B.

    Welcome to the 20th Century .GM will be producing alloy bodied cars just like a myriad of other producers did 100 years ago. So what? if you want to buy a 55.MPG car you are going to have to bear the cost .I read something else into this. There is no way a 55MPG car made from Alloy will ever be the Green vehicle the fools who mandate legislation will have us believe.
    Do a little research into the production of aluminium and see how much electricity is involved .Then consider the amount of coal or oil burned to produce that product.

    • 0 avatar

      Now see you go and bring critical thinking into it…

      • 0 avatar

        he would be using critical thinking if he actually know how and where aluminum is produced.

        “The latest power plant construction in Iceland took place at Kárahnjúkar. The 690 MW hydropower plant at Kárahnjúkar is the largest of its type in Europe. It fuels Alcoa’s aluminum smelter in Reyðarfjörður.”

        • 0 avatar

          Hey everybody! Look at this one aluminum smelting plant so I can pretend to have a point!

          This is as bad as that FormerFF person trying to mislead about the Obama regime’s CAFE impacts by selectively presenting a couple of unrelated facts as if they were the facts. Why is the left so comfortable with lying to further an agenda that can only be defended with lies? What do they think they’re serving?

          • 0 avatar

            Was I talking about lakes in the Amazon? No, I was talking about dams in Quebec, the Pacific Northwest, Iceland and Norway.

            Do you even think or read before your spout your ignorant opinions?

          • 0 avatar

            That’s my point. You’re trying to say aluminum is a material we should multiply our use of based on your perception of the cleanliness of some of its sources. If the actual production of aluminum involves destroying forests for hydroelectric plants, which people who care about such things say causes more CO2 production than using petroleum or coal, then you don’t have a point. Which I suspect you know you don’t, no matter how cluelessly you portray yourself here for the purpose of spreading misinformation.

    • 0 avatar
      heavy handle

      Isn’t aluminum mostly produced in locations where electricity is cheap, meaning that it is not produced using coal/oil? I know Quebec is a huge producer because of their cheap hydro-electric power.

      China is a top producer, and they also have lots of hydroelectric and nuclear. Anybody know if their AL production is located nearby?

    • 0 avatar

      Most elecrricty used in aluminum production is hydro.

      • 0 avatar

        In Australia, the Victorian government offered a deal to Alcoa to build an aluminium smelter in exchange for cheap electricity in the 1980s. The power came from a government owned brown coal station 500km away. The government built the high voltage power lines. Subsequently the power station was privatized, power costs went up and Alcoa went away.
        Big cost to ratepayers, lots of pollution, ruined long term power strategies.

        • 0 avatar
          Big Al from Oz

          The aluminium industry was consuming 25% of all power generate in Australia.

          They were buying the power at obscenely low prices.

          Much of the refining and smelting has moved over to Indonesia.

          I think the best place to process bauxite, etc and produce aluminium would be Iceland.

          They have unlimited geothermal energy.

    • 0 avatar
      Frankie the Hollywood Scum

      How do you define a green vehicle? Total carbon emissions from production to the sweet release of the crusher? Total usage of hydrocarbon fuels? Tailpipe emissions? By some metrics the classics rolling around in Havana are squekey green but I sure would not want to crash in one.

    • 0 avatar

      It helps to know that 55 mpg isn’t really 55 mpg.

  • avatar

    “However, aluminum is more expensive than steel, which may prompt the automaker to use it on luxury vehicles or on trucks and SUVs, following Ford’s extensive use of aluminum on the new F-150.”

    Would make sense for any number of makers to do this these vehicles – they’re the ones dragging down the average anyway. And it’d make even better sense with performance cars – it’d help performance AND fuel economy, I’m sure BTSR is salivating at the idea of a 700-hp aluminum HELLCAT (all caps to salute our raconteur of all things Hemi).

    But I’d be surprised if we saw it extensively in lower priced vehicles.

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    The greatest advantage of the use of aluminium will be in the vehicles most impacted by CAFE regulations.

    This would indicate that commercial vehicles should not be considered prior to automobiles, ie, cars.

    Pickups have an advantage over cars using CAFE. That’s why I found it odd that Ford went to aluminium on the F-150 when it did. When the use of aluminium on cars would of been more beneficial in meeting CAFE requirement.

    The only reason I can put it down to is design and the use of a full chassis.

    Look at the alumimium F-150s design and you will notice there are many straight and flat(ish) planes the vehicle is based on.

    This allows for much easier production, ie, long straight lines as opposed to the many planes that cars are styled with.

    So, essentially the style of the pickup has made Ford consider it a worthwhile exercise.

    • 0 avatar

      And payload. While it might not matter to the avg person buying a $50-60k truck, the guy buying a $25k truck will be delighted that a F150 can replace the F250 in some cases now and save on cost, registration, fuel, and other fleet important considerations. I find that 99% of retail customers buy more truck than they need, and 99% of commercial customers buy less truck than they use.

      • 0 avatar
        Big Al from Oz

        I read a very good working document compiled in the EU regarding the use of materials in commercial vehicles vs engine/drivetrain and aero changes.

        The study found that aluminium was only beneficial if a vehicle was used some ridiculous amounts of hours per week to offset the investment in the lighter material.

        Aerodynamic and engine/drivetrain efficiency gains were the viable option.

        I do think another salient argument for Ford to go down the route of an aluminium pickup is the profit generated by such vehicles in the US. The F-150 posed less risk as an investment. This is even considering that cars were of greater advantage using lighter materials in meeting CAFE requirements.

        Cars in the US sit on approximately a 3% profit and pickups currently make around a 25% profit.

    • 0 avatar

      @BAFO – It makes perfect sense. F-series mpg gains impact Ford’s over all fleet average, more than any Ford hybrid econo compact ever could, by shear volume of F-series.

      And no Ford auto can gain as much from drastically improved working payload. Plus if a Focus rusts into the ground 20 years from now, no one is really out much cash, even if otherwise in mint condition. But today, a rust-free ’95 pickup can easily hold $10,000 value if it’s a fully optioned fullsize 4X4 in fair condition.

      Basically there’s always more at stake with fullsize pickups. Ford made the right call here.

      • 0 avatar
        Big Al from Oz

        Your comment would of represented some value if you actually considered your statement.

        The Transit van will benefit far more from aluminium than the F-150.

        75% of F-150s don’t work. So what use is it to rant and rave regarding payload?

        Whereas most the Transit will be used for work.

        Still the most impacted vehicles with CAFE are cars. They would be the first choice, but their profit margins are to small to take on that risk.

        Pickups have a more or less fixed rate of profit due to protection of 25%. This makes them viable. It has very little to do with payload.

        • 0 avatar

          @BAFO – Pay attention this time. I’ll go slower: The F-series represents Ford’s biggest users of what we like to call “fuel”. A small increase in F-series FE translates into tremendous impact for Ford fleet average and collectively, small improvements for up to a million US new pickup owners annually, loaded, empty, don’t matter.

          But it’s stup!d to think the Chicken tax creates 25% of anything. Since OEMs easily get around it by something we like to call “loopholes”. 25% is a arbitrary number. It could just as well be 2,500,000%

          But if it guaranteed 25% profit. The Tundra, Titan, Frontier, Ridgeline would enjoy that too. And we’d still have every pickup ever sold here, STILL SOLD HERE!!!

  • avatar

    Saturn plastic lanes were great (owned a Vue) although I know they were cost prohibitive that’s why they “went away”

  • avatar

    GM’s big announcement that it plans to invest $5.4 billion into its factories doesn’t give a timeframe. I suspect it is a significantly longer time period than GM’s recent announcement of a $5 billion stock buyback that GM said would take 21 months. In other words, GM will likely be paying off stock speculators faster than it will be investing in its factories. That’s the old GM way.

  • avatar

    The answer here lies in the Cadillac CT6 – its body is a hybrid steel/aluminum structure. They’ve gotten a fairly amazing result out of it, and there are hints it’s what the next gen Malibu follows the same pattern.

    GM’s not going all aluminum. They’re going more aluminum.

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