Car driving through forest

Can safer cars also be more sustainable?

We’re doing our part to help car manufacturers build lighter, stronger and more fuel-efficient vehicles


By producing aluminium, we’re doing our part to help car manufacturers build lighter, stronger and more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Aluminium’s use by the automotive sector is set to go up a gear, as auto manufacturers intensify their quest to design vehicles with ever-better fuel economy, safety and performance.

“Aluminium remains the fastest growing automotive material over competing materials,” said Abey Abraham of research firm Ducker Worldwide. “[It’s] entering its most unprecedented growth phase since we’ve been tracking the shifting mix of automotive materials.”

Design evolution

The average amount of aluminium contained in lightweight cars and trucks in North America was 397 pounds (180kg) per vehicle in 2015. In a recent study, Ducker is forecasting that quantity to increase by more than 40 per cent by 2028, to 565 pounds (256kg) per vehicle. At that point, aluminium is expected to represent 16 per cent of total average vehicle weight.

Aluminium, the infinitely recyclable and long lasting metal.

Aluminium remains the fastest growing automotive material over competing materials. Abey Abraham, director of Automotive and Materials, Ducker Worldwide

Light yet strong, aluminium has become an essential material for automakers seeking to push the weight of vehicles down, while ensuring they remain safe and durable. For every ten per cent reduction in the weight of a vehicle, fuel economy improves by seven per cent, saving the consumer money and benefitting the environment. Using one kilogram of aluminium to replace heavier materials in a car of light truck can save a net 20kg of carbon dioxide over the life of the vehicle.

An emerging design trend among automakers is also driving aluminium’s increased market penetration into the sector.

“To further improve fuel economy, battery range, safety and overall driving performance, automakers no longer default to a single material,” said Abey. “Instead [they] are pursuing a multi-material design approach where the best material is chosen for the best application.”

This is seeing aluminium increasingly being selected for vehicle doors, the lids of hoods and trunks (otherwise known as bonnets and boots), the body, bumpers and crash boxes

Airplane containing aluminium

Metal for Good

As well as reducing the weight of vehicles to provide energy and greenhouse gas emissions benefits, aluminium can offer intrinsic sustainability advantages compared with other materials.

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As well as reducing the weight of vehicles to provide energy and greenhouse gas emissions benefits, aluminium can offer intrinsic sustainability advantages compared with other materials.

Producing aluminium remains an energy-intensive process, but by pursuing alternative power sources and new technologies, improvements are being made. Rio Tinto has reduced its greenhouse intensity from aluminium production by 39 per cent since 2008. Almost 80 per cent of the Aluminium group’s total power needs are supplied by low-carbon sources, with 55 per cent coming from self-generated hydropower, compared with 35 per cent for the industry.

Rio Tinto also produces RenewAl™, the world’s first certified low-carbon dioxide aluminium, with a 65 per cent lower CO2 footprint than the industry average.

Innovation drives demand

Half a century ago, US brewer Coors introduced the first all-aluminium beverage can – an invention that went on to transform demand for the metal. Today, the automotive industry is the most important growth sector for aluminium since the arrival of that iconic drinks can in the 1950s.

“On top of 40 years of uninterrupted growth, the aluminium industry is experiencing a level of growth not seen before in any market or product sector,” said Heidi Brock, president and CEO of the Aluminum Association.

“However the true winners of this change are consumers who can choose next-generation cars and trucks that are high-performing, efficient, safe, sustainable and more fun to drive.”
Heidi Brock, president and CEO of the Aluminum Association

“Aluminium is the natural ally of efficient and sustainable transportation,” said Jim Dickson, director, Global Automotive Strategy for Rio Tinto’s Aluminium commercial division. “We expect that regulatory issues around fuel efficiency and emissions – and continuous innovation – will support significant growth for automotive aluminium in North America and other regions.

“New and emerging automotive trends, such as electric and autonomous vehicles, and higher expectations related to safety and performance, all bode well for aluminium.”

Red car

In safe hands

Pound for pound, aluminium can absorb twice as much crash energy as steel. It can also be engineered to fold predictably during collision so the vehicle absorbs much of the crash energy, before it reaches the passenger compartment.

By reducing vehicle weight, aluminium can help drivers avoid a collision in the first place, since lighter vehicles have a shorter stopping distance than heavier models.

In fact, every aluminium-bodied car or truck ever crash-tested by US federal regulators, including recent models of the Ford F-150, has earned a perfect five-star safety rating.