The Future of Autonomous Vehicles Depends on Steel


Autonomous vehicles are coming. While we don’t know what they’ll look like or what final form the various control technologies will take, the one thing we know for certain is these future vehicles will depend on high-strength steel.

Automakers are in the business of delivering what people want and, as new research shows, Americans want their vehicles made of steel. Only 10 percent of consumers believe aluminum is as durable or as strong as steel, or that it protects their family as well as steel. More than half perceive steel as the most important material for the vehicle’s frame.

Existing trends demonstrate future vehicles will increasingly be built with advanced high-strength steel (AHSS), with tensile strength over 500 MPa, and ultra high-strength steel (UHSS), with tensile strength over 1000 MPa. Notably, while only 17 percent of consumers today are aware of AHSS, researchers found when they’re educated about its unbeatable mix of weight, strength and sustainability; they strongly prefer it over alternative materials such as aluminum for all their vehicle’s components.

Give the People What They Want

Various factors come into the decision-making process for vehicle purchase, including the potential impact of sharing autonomous vehicles. The average personally-owned vehicle sits in a garage or parking lot for most of the day and night while its owner is home, at work or even asleep. Proposed shared autonomous vehicles currently under development will spend a much larger percentage of their time on the road, meaning replacement will be more frequent, and thus, end-of-life and easy recyclability will be more important. For the best end of lifecycle process, designing with steel is important because it is 100 percent recyclable versus harder-to-salvage alternative materials. This also leverages steel’s existing lower total life cycle carbon footprint than alternative materials, which create greenhouse gas emissions four to 20 times greater than steel during production.

Automakers trying to attract individual and fleet consumers who may already have safety concerns about autonomous vehicles can find solutions in steel’s inherent strength and durability. As we’ve noted before, automotive manufacturers looking at the design challenges and opportunities of an autonomous future know steel is a critical component of safety, cabin design, price and other key factors. This means the ongoing shift in today’s cars, trucks and SUVs from traditional steel to AHSS and UHSS will continue into the autonomous vehicles of the future.


Tomorrow’s Steel for Tomorrow’s Vehicles

This shift from traditional flat-rolled steel to high-strength and low-weight AHSS and UHSS is already happening industry-wide. Market research firm Ducker Worldwide says over the past five years, the average vehicle cut 55 pounds in weight by upgrading to newer steel grades. While the average vehicle now has 329 pounds of high-strength steel, market researchers expect it to grow to 570 pounds by 2025 when autonomous vehicles are expected to be more common on American roads.

This is also right around the time when UHSS is expected to surpass AHSS in vehicle content. This is a sign of the degree to which materials innovation is keeping pace with, or even exceeding, higher-profile innovation in vehicle sensors and software. The North American steel industry is constantly working to develop higher-value, lightweight materials such as our strongest and most formable 3rd-Gen AHSS to meet automakers’ needs and deliver on the trust consumers place in steel to keep them safe and secure, no matter who – or what – is at the wheel.

Where do you think tomorrow’s autonomous vehicles will benefit most from high-tech steel? Let us know in the comments below!

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