Whether we are ready or not, the automotive industry, as it looks today, is going to look vastly different in a decade or two.
Even if the promise of a fully autonomous future never pans out, we are guaranteed to see more and more of our vehicles with components of autonomy designed to make driving easier.
The more optimistic among us can even envision a future where we gather around the other occupants in the car, living room style, while the vehicle automatically drives us to our destination. When we hear of autonomous vehicles, this is, perhaps, the image that most often comes to mind.
And with that imagery comes ideas of space-age materials that make our cars lighter and more pleasing to the eye. But no matter how futuristic our methods of transportation become, steel will always have a place in this version of the future.
If you don’t believe us, look no further than consumer preferences.
According to a study commissioned last year by the Steel Market Development Institute, the new study finds Americans in the market for a new vehicle continue to trust and prefer steel as the automotive material of choice.
A majority of customers surveyed believe steel to be preferable to aluminum when it comes to durability, strength, and safety.
As a result, consumers still strongly prefer key components of a vehicle, such as the frame, doors, bed, fender and bumpers, to be made of steel. More than 50 percent of all consumers perceive steel as the most important material in a vehicle’s frame or body structure.
As we think about future mobility and how it’s going to impact our world, we remain confident steel will always have a place.
With that in mind, here are four ways steel will play a significant role in future mobility.
Sustainability is going to weigh heavily on the minds of future generations when they decide which vehicle they want to lease, buy, share or rent.
Whereas we are just starting to understand the effect vehicles on the road today have on our environment, we are only going to become more knowledgeable about our impact so that future manufacturing choices lead to a smaller footprint.
The fact remains that steel is the most environmentally friendly material you can build into a car.
For every kilogram of steel produced, 1.9 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions are emitted.
Compared to aluminum, which produces 8.9 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram, steel is far and away the better option, but sustainability of steel goes beyond emissions.
The ability to recycle steel, both at the beginning and end of production, gives it a massive advantage over other materials.
Steel can be disassembled and shredded when its automotive usefulness is complete and turned into almost any grade of steel imaginable, with minimal alloying. What was once a piece of a car can be turned into everything from pipes and bridges, to panels for dishwashers and refrigerators, giving steel life beyond the automobile.
Aluminum recycling is a trickier beast to slay because it needs to be sorted into like alloys or grades.
For instance, aluminum cans can be recycled into…aluminum cans, but typically not automotive sheet metal. It takes seven times more energy, as well, to take aluminum ore product and turn it into aluminum metal than it does to turn iron ore into an iron product.
In a perfectly functional autonomous world, there will be no crashes because all of the cars on the road will communicate with each other.
As we all know, there is no such thing as perfect.
The cars of tomorrow are going to get dinged up and dented because we are still a long way from a fully autonomous future. So, automakers and vehicle owners – especially fleets – need to invest in material that can withstand regular contact, while keeping the cost down.
Car-sharing services like Maven and Zipcar are going to become more of the norm, but they will still be driven by humans. As the vehicles spend more time on the road, the fleet owners will want to ensure, to the best of their ability, that the vehicles spend more time on the road and less time in the shop getting repaired.
Steel provides the best durability option to ensure there is as little downtime as possible. These savings, which can be realized in the form of lower insurance costs and less money spent on repair, can be passed on to the consumer.
Whether or not that happens is up for debate, but steel gives manufacturers the durability they desire when choosing the ideal material for their products.
If premonitions about our self-driving future come to fruition, the cars of the future will act more like living rooms on wheels than the current models we know and love today.
When (if) this happens, car designers will have to make major structural changes to the vehicles.
Most experts think the center pillar will be removed to improve access in and out of the vehicle as well as accommodate a family, or small group, that wants to sit comfortably and play board games while their car whisks them away to their intended destination.
Thanks to steel, designers can give occupants the same peace-of-mind they would get in a car with the center pillar. Steel’s strength and formability allow for more flexibility in designing a door ring with no center pillar, without compromising occupant protection.
On top of that, steel’s superior acoustic performance to aluminum gives passengers a quieter cabin, which results in a more pleasurable ride experience when they want to hear what the person across from them is saying.
If you think certain vehicles have a larger blind spot, you are not imagining things.
Windshield pillars are critical to ensuring occupant safety in the event of a rollover. However, the size of the pillar section can also block the driver’s field of vision and prevent him from seeing oncoming vehicles or pedestrians. These competing design objectives can be readily addressed with advanced high-strength steel that can provide adequate strength with slimmer windshield pillar sections
Some automakers have already demonstrated the ability to execute thinner windshield pillars to allow more visibility, as we saw a few years ago with the Acura NSX.
This boost in visibility would not have been possible with any other material. Engineers took advantage of steel’s strength and formability to design slimmer yet complex geometries for the windshield pillar and roof side rails as one continuous strong piece.
Advanced high-strength steel, which is used in many vehicles today, can make the car body structure stronger, while lightening the weight of the vehicle at an affordable cost.
We also see the advantage of strong and thin when it comes to battery packs in cars with electrification.
Since advanced high-strength steel applications can be designed more efficiently than, say, with aluminum, a battery pack structural enclosure made of steel can house more batteries and, thus, allow the car to go farther on a single charge than if the battery casing was made out of aluminum.
When you design with aluminum, the part section size grows, which means less space for the batteries.
While aluminum and carbon fiber get the buzz associated with the future of transportation, it’s advanced high-strength steel that provides the most practical solutions to how we will travel on the roads in the coming decades, and it will remain that way for some time.
Until something more cost-effective and sustainable comes along, steel gives us the best path forward to a world that embraces future mobility.