Recent industry commentary on suggests that as auto makers work to reduce vehicle weight to boost fuel economy and cut emissions, the dominant incumbent material “wins.” 

Such statements may make for a great headline, but it’s neither accurate nor productive.

Unquestionably, aluminum’s time in transportation has come. Building on 40 years of uninterrupted growth, use of infinitely recyclable, high-strength, low-weight aluminum is expected to double in automotive applications by 2025.

In a 2011 WardsAuto-DuPont survey, auto executives and engineers singled out aluminum as the “most helpful” material in meeting tough new federal fuel-economy standards.

At Novelis, we see a 25% compound annual growth rate for our automotive aluminum sheet for the next several years. That’s one reason we are investing $200 million in a New York-based manufacturing plant to include two new processing lines and another $100 million in China to help serve our global automotive customers.

Within the next five years or less, there will be high volume, aluminum-intensive passenger vehicles in showrooms, delivering to the mass market the same successes won in luxury vehicles such as the aluminum-intensive Audi A-8 and Jaguar XJ Series. We already are seeing it happen in light trucks, as Land Rover broke new ground last year offering consumers the world’s first SUV with an all-aluminum unibody, nearly 40% lighter than the outgoing model it replaced. 

When it comes to safely “down weighting” cars and trucks, this very publication has quoted a Honda executive as saying, “Based on our current understanding, we believe we’re approaching the practical limits of the application of high-strength steels.”

Yet aluminum’s potential grows.  With respect to carbon emissions, results from a study conducted by the Magnesium Front End Research and Development Project for the Canadian, Chinese and U.S. governments confirms that aluminum has the smallest carbon footprint of competing materials, including steel, when examining total-lifecycle carbon-dioxide emissions.

So any way you look at it, from growing market share, to reducing weight safely, to shrinking the carbon footprint of the automobile, aluminum is driving forward. The record called for clearing up these facts, but I should note that such debates about competing materials miss the point, which is that consumers don’t care what materials make up their vehicles. They care about fuel economy, safety, durability, performance and affordability.

They want vehicles that are practical, look good and are fun to drive. Auto makers know this and are deploying an ever-advancing range of materials, technologies and designs to meet the increasing demands of the market. 

To succeed, auto makers need suppliers to keep innovating and keep providing solutions to today’s challenges while securing tomorrow’s promise. Auto makers will continue to choose the best material for the best application, and more and more they are opting for aluminum.

The fact is, aluminum, steel, plastics and magnesium not only need to co-exist, they need to work together in vehicle design because all of them are here to stay. Multi-material joining and forming are areas to address. Much progress has been made to date, with more to come. 

So what will the automobile of the future look like?  It will be lighter, safer and greener. To get there, the materials status quo will give way to a changing mix of old and new materials and aluminum will continue to grow in vehicle applications. That is good for consumers and the planet.

Roland Harings is vice president-Global Automotive for Novelis, the world’s largest producer of aluminum automotive sheet.