Partnering new vehicle trends with steel innovations

Jan. 3, 2018
The innovation in the steel industry has been strong during the past several decades of collaboration with automakers. This partnership has led to more than 200 grades of sheet steel delivering the best performance for each individual application.

The automotive market is constantly evolving to keep up with consumer demands as well as government regulations. In addition, major automakers are competing for business globally. These factors create an environment for innovation, driving the latest industry trends in connected and autonomous vehicles.

A connected vehicle simply means the vehicle is equipped with internet access and also typically with a wireless local area network, or use short-range radio signals to communicate. This technology allows the car to share information among devices inside as well as outside the vehicle. Although initially applied for occupant convenience and entertainment, this technology is expanding to include vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication to enable cooperative safety.

Autonomous vehicles are self-driving, or as defined by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) as vehicles without direct driver input or monitoring to control the steering, acceleration and braking while operating in self-driving mode. With the use of advanced sensors and on-board computers, these vehicles will be capable of transporting people or goods without the active participation of a driver or anyone in the driver’s seat. Connectivity and autonomy work together to provide the most efficient communication to operate a vehicle without a need for driver input.

All of this technology sounds promising, but automobiles are already large investments. The average vehicle cost has increased to more than $34,000, up 57 percent in the past 20 years, even though there has only been an average of 21 percent increase in new car buyers’ income in the past 20 years. Thus, the addition of sensors and other enablers for connected and autonomous vehicles will increase the price and jeopardize the affordability to the average household.

Because of the high cost of owning a vehicle, consumers are moving away from wanting to purchase a vehicle. This is especially true in large urban areas. Think about how often your car or truck is parked at home or while working, shopping or being entertained. The average vehicle is driven less than 300 hours per year, a total usage of four percent, meaning a car is parked for more than 96 percent of the time. Many consumers prefer to pay only for the time they use a vehicle, thus the creation of ride-sharing. This concept is being applied currently to rental cars and even ride-hailing services such as Uber or Lyft, and is expected to grow rapidly in major metropolitan areas where parking is costly and not easily accessible. In addition, insurance rates are higher because of the increased number of fender benders and theft.

Although heavily populated areas appear to be obvious choices for driverless, connected, and/or shared vehicles, people living in less populated areas may actually have longer commutes for work, entertainment and shopping. Without the infrastructure of public transportation, they cannot use their commuting time to reply to emails, read a book or catch up on a favorite show. They must pay attention and drive their vehicle. Autonomous vehicles will allow them more time to do other activities while their car is being driven without additional distractions.

The vision of driverless vehicles has been around for many decades, in fact as far back as the 1920s. However, only recently has enabling technology caught up to make this possible. There seems to be a race among not only traditional automakers, but also technology companies like Google, Apple and Amazon, to develop connected and autonomous vehicles. Driverless test vehicles are already on the road functioning as ride-hailing services in a few major cities. It will not be long until this technology is produced in high-volume production and for consumer purchase.

With the trend toward connected and autonomous vehicles, many questions arise. How will these technologies change today’s vehicle design and manufacture? Will vehicles look significantly different? Will there no longer be a need for safety features such as airbags, crashworthy structures and seat belts? How will this affect the purchase, leased or shared price of a vehicle? Will vehicles still require structural materials to meet performance demands? How will this impact repair?

Today’s average car or truck contains about 50 percent steel. The majority of steel is in sheet form used for the body structure and closures (i.e., doors, hood, fenders and deck lids or lift gates) along with some chassis and suspension components. These vehicle systems provide styling, ride and handling performance, crash protection and durability. The use of steel in these applications provides a cost-effective solution. Let’s take a look at how the design and manufacture of vehicles may or may not change with these future trends.


The first assumption typically made regarding connected and autonomous vehicles surrounds safety improvements, as a result of reduced collisions with other vehicles and outside factors such as pedestrians, bicyclists and inanimate objects (buildings, poles, etc.). Many anticipate the elimination of crashworthiness requirements and regulations because connected and autonomous vehicles will eliminate collisions all together. This is a highly debated topic. Certainly success in this technology will lead to significant reduction in collisions, however, complete elimination cannot be guaranteed.

The average life of a vehicle on the road today is more than 11 years and the average turnover rate, the ratio of the number of vehicles registered in the US to the number of sales, is 14 years indicating a maximum vehicle age. Therefore, it will take at least 14 years after all new vehicles sold are autonomous before crash regulations could be eliminated. However, this is the only the average life of a vehicle. This does not include vehicles older than 11 years, nor does it include collector vehicles. Therefore, it would realistically take at least two decades beyond 100 percent autonomous vehicle sales before regulations are relaxed. In the meantime, all vehicles would need to comply with current requirements.

In addition to vehicles colliding with another vehicle or other objects, we also need to consider other accidents that may occur such as animals running in front of cars or trees falling onto a vehicle during a storm. Will sensor technology be able to process these incidents as quickly and successfully as collisions with vehicles? What if swerving to avoid a pedestrian or deer makes you collide with a building or another car? Will all obstructions be avoidable?

These important questions regarding safety requirements do not need to be answered right now. Keep in mind the body structure does more than provide crashworthiness. Along with the chassis and suspension systems it provides the ride and handling experience. To reduce the requirements of structural materials such as steel in these applications would assume high-quality, well-maintained surfaces for all roads and parking lots your vehicle will encounter. In addition, road lane markings must be maintained along with road signage and other markings the vehicle will be monitoring. Some might say this would be more difficult to achieve than eliminating collisions. All of these components need durability to withstand various road conditions and even the imperfections of human drivers, such as hitting curbs.


Durability needs will also increase with ride-sharing services. Shared vehicles will certainly be driven significantly more mileage than the average personal vehicle today (10-15,000 miles per year). In addition, drivers of shared vehicles may not take as much care in the use of a vehicle they do not personally own. To keep these vehicles in service, providers will want to saturate their fleets with high-durability cars and trucks.

Other body structure functions are to provide the framework for closures. Consumers are showing a desire to optimize the interior space of their autonomous vehicles differently such that the car interior resembles more of a small family room with seating facing center (verses forward). This may change the way passengers enter and exit a vehicle, thus changing the body side design. This could include elimination of the center pillar which would require more structural performance from the surrounding components. The overall structure will also need to provide areas to package sensors and protection from damaging these sensors. Minor fender benders today are more costly because of current high-tech headlight and taillight designs requiring expensive unit replacements. This can also be the case in the future for sensor replacements if they are not well protected in minor collisions.

Recent automotive design innovations, for example hot-stamped laser-welded steel door rings, necessitate innovations in the collision repair community. As future vehicles become autonomous and shared, require designs that are more durable and easy to repair, automakers will provide vehicles designed for repair. This will require structural components designed for repair at specified factory cut lines; with the use of innovative repair joining technology; or could require a complete replacement of an integral sub-system; like the aforementioned door ring. Working with steel; the automaker will continue to provide cost effective solutions to the repair community and most importantly to the consumer.

In addition to the cost of the sensor and computing technology required to successfully implement connectivity and autonomy, the cost of zero emissions powertrains is adding significantly to the total price of the vehicle. One way to help counteract the large investment in sensors and batteries is to lightweight body and chassis components with advanced high-strength steel (AHSS). The high value of steel over competing structural materials helps balance these costs to achieve a final optimized cost to the consumer.

In addition to performance and cost benefits, steel has many environmental advantages. When evaluating the full impact of any vehicle on the environment, the entire life cycle must be considered. Vehicle life cycle assessment is the analysis of greenhouse gas emissions and energy from vehicle production, including the manufacture of the materials and assembly of the vehicle, through its use or driving phase, and finally through its recycling at end-of-life.

As automakers deliver more and more zero and partial-zero emissions vehicles, this removes emissions from the middle phase of the life cycle (although technically moving the emissions to an alternate power source for example recharging batteries for elective vehicles or producing hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles). This leaves the production phase and end-of-life recycling for emissions analysis.

Production of steel is significantly more energy efficient than alternate body and chassis materials such as aluminum, magnesium or carbon fiber, thus also lower in emissions to produce as shown below. Therefore, lightweighting with steel will save significant amounts of unnecessary emissions over lightweighting with these other materials.

At the end of life, steel also has a significant advantage as it is the easiest material to recycle, and in fact the most recycled material in the world. Steel is easy to sort because of its magnetic properties. It also can be re-melted into any of the other several hundred automotive sheet or bar steel grades. This is not the same for aluminum. For the highest value of recycled aluminum, the alloys must be sorted and re-melted by very specific groups. If various sheet aluminum grades are mixed or if they are mixed with extrusions and castings, this results in downgrading the re-melted mixture. Therefore, to make more sheet grades, more primary aluminum must be produced from its ore which significantly increases emissions.

With these advantages in production and end-of-life for steel, it does not make environmental sense to lightweight with alternate materials. Doing so, would definitely lead to unintended consequences to the commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In summary, the innovation in the steel industry has been strong during the past several decades of collaboration with automakers. This partnership has led to more than 200 grades of sheet steel delivering the best performance for each individual application. By increasing strength of steel, the industry has benefited in higher performing parts with lower mass without major changes in manufacturing infrastructure. New AHSS grades, referred to as third generation AHSS (3rd Gen AHSS), continue the advantages of high strength along with high elongation to give engineers more part design flexibility. All of this is done at the lowest cost to automakers and the highest value to consumers. It is no wonder why steel has been an effective material for vehicles of yesterday, on the road today and maintaining its value for tomorrow.

About the Author

Jody Hall | Dr.

Dr. Jody Hall is the vice president of the automotive market for the Steel Market Development Institute, where she is responsible for leadership of the Automotive Applications Council, a group of member steel producers, in automotive research, education and technology transfer activities. She also coordinates the steel input to the Auto/Steel Partnership (which has car company members including FCA, Ford and General Motors), and other steel-related consortia.

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