STEEL VS AL: Aluminium-bodied vehicles may drive up costs:SMDI

As aluminium-bodied vehicles such as Ford Motor Co’s 2015 F-150 pick-up truck enter mass production, repairability and cost of ownership will become a greater focus for consumers.

As aluminium-bodied vehicles such as Ford Motor Co’s 2015 F-150 pick-up truck enter mass production, repairability and cost of ownership will become a greater focus for consumers.

And early indications are that aluminium vehicles could well come with higher maintenance costs than those made from steel, according to top executives from the Steel Market Development Institute (SMDI).

"If you think about the cost of ownership, the arrows certainly point in the up direction for aluminium," SMDI president Larry Kavanagh said in an interview with Metal Bulletin sister publication AMM.

Aluminium vehicles have largely lived in niche luxury markets so far, making them less likely to face scrutiny on such issues.

"We never heard much about repairability and cost of ownership because the people who drive those vehicles can afford it," Kavanagh said. "But now, when there’s consideration of high-volume vehicles, the question is how these more expensive materials factor into the cost of ownership."

For example, galvanic corrosion could become a key concern for aluminium vehicle owners. "When you’re mixing materials in a vehicle with aluminium and steel, where they come into contact you can create galvanic corrosion," Kavanagh said.

This can create a challenge for repairs as well as for numerous aftermarket additions – for example, in vehicles such as the Jeep Wrangler – that owners typically do themselves. "Many owners could do that wrong and wind up with corrosion issues with their vehicle," Kavanagh said.

Meanwhile, repair shops could struggle with the relatively low melting point of aluminium as compared with steel, SMDI automotive market vp Jody N Hall said.

Aluminium parts also are generally less formable, which means there "could be more replacement than repair" in aluminium vehicles, Hall said. And this could come at a higher cost.

"It’s far less expensive to replace a steel panel than an aluminium panel," Hall said, adding that aluminium repairs also will require a new set of tools to avoid cross-contamination between materials, as well as training.

As far as how the insurance costs for aluminium vehicles might differ compared with steel, the results remain to be seen.

"They (insurers) are watching this and they tell us it generally takes two to three years to develop a database," Kavanagh said.

The same goes for how the material will react to damage.

"That’s something that’s going to be learned over time as there are more accidents involving cars with alternative materials," Kavanagh said.

A spokesman for Dearborn, Michigan-based Ford did not immediately return a request for comment.

This report was first published by American Metal Market.
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