Automakers can reduce the weight of vehicles without making them less safe, the Aluminum Association says.
Research released last week shows lighter vehicles can be made to perform better in crashes than their heavier counterparts, the organization contends. That's especially true, it says, if those vehicles' designs include larger front and rear crush zones to absorb energy.
Size matters more than weight, the group says. Its findings contradict government research that concluded heavier vehicles are safer than lighter vehicles.
The research does not address the costs of making vehicles lighter or of making them larger without a weight increase. But the association says there have been big gains in the efficiency of processing aluminum.
The association's members include aluminum suppliers that are eager to sell more of their products to automakers. But there is a more urgent purpose to the research.
The association and its allies want to keep federal regulators from rewriting fuel economy rules to include weight classifications.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced in late 2003 that it would review the rules that govern the corporate average fuel economy program, or CAFE. The rules are 30 years old.
Sources indicate NHTSA likely will unveil its proposed changes this spring. They could include a new definition of light truck, an application of CAFE standards to the largest light trucks, and the addition of vehicle categories beyond the simple separation of cars and trucks.
Cars, on average, are required to meet a fuel economy standard of 27.5 mpg. Light trucks, on average, must comply with a 21.0 mpg standard.
Proponents of weight classes say they would discourage automakers from cutting vehicle weight to comply with tougher CAFE rules, making those vehicles less safe.
Weight classes also could ease compliance for automakers that sell more large vehicles, especially pickups and SUVs, advocates argue.
Opponents of weight classes say they could encourage automakers to produce even heavier vehicles, moving them into categories with less strict fuel economy standards. That practice, opponents assert, would thwart CAFE's goal of reducing fuel consumption.
The Aluminum Association worries that weight classes would hurt sales of its products to automakers. But Tom Gannon, who chairs the association's auto and light-truck group, says the research isn't entirely self-serving. It can apply to any kind of lightweight material, he says.
"We want to make sure car companies have all the options available to them," says Gannon, vice president of sales and marketing at Novelis Inc., an aluminum company in Atlanta.
Gannon says aluminum has a price advantage over steel when automakers count full life cycle costs.
The association's research concluded that cutting the weight of an SUV by 20 percent but keeping its size the same made it 15 percent safer. That is, such vehicles could be expected to sustain 15 percent fewer fatal crashes.
Keeping the SUV's weight the same but adding larger front and rear crush zones increased safety by 26 percent, the association says.
The findings are based on computer modeling of 500 real-world crash records, not new crash testing. Dynamic Research Inc. of Torrance, Calif., conducted the study.
The Aluminum Association submitted earlier versions of the findings to NHTSA for its consideration in its rewriting of CAFE rules. American Honda Motor Co. also has used Dynamic Research data to argue that cutting weight need not make vehicles less safe.