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Automation, electrification, and regulation boost demand for AHSS

Without adequate protection, EV collisions could be disastrous. AHSS can solve this, and meet the tougher demands of automation and emerging market regulation. By Xavier Boucherat

The material mix used in automotive manufacturing is diversifying for several reasons, including cost-effective lightweighting and improved vehicle performance. But as autonomous driving technology and electrification continue to transform the industry, so too will the way vehicles are designed and assembled change. Some of the challenges around how best to build tomorrow’s vehicles are clear; for example, how best to safely house large, heavy batteries?

Past incidents have already highlighted the importance of this, particularly as electric vehicles (EVs) penetrate the market further. Despite adding shielding to the vehicle’s undercarriage in 2014, Tesla’s Model S made headlines more than once in 2016 with reports of vehicles catching fire. In one incident, a fatal crash in Indianapolis, Indiana, set the lithium-ion battery on fire, leaving firefighters to dodge exploding battery cells.

Kenneth Olsson, Business Development Specialist as SSAB, argues that the Swedish company’s brand of advanced high strength steel (AHSS) is a compelling solution. An alternative chemical composition used in the production process produces a steel called DOCOL which, whilst not suitable for exposed panels, can be used for shock-absorbing components in door beams and chassis components, as well as for lightweighting purposes across other components such as seat frames and bumpers.

Fundamentally, EVs require the same crash performance as cars with internal combustion engines, but with essential additional requirements to protect the battery

Electrification opens up what he believes could be a major new application, particularly as governments adjust to the reality of more EVs on the road. “Fundamentally, EVs require the same crash performance as cars with internal-combustion engines, but with essential additional requirements to protect the battery,” Olsson says. Legislation on the matter is already incoming in North America, and the rest of the world will almost certainly follow. This will require electric vehicle manufacturers to ensure that cars involved in a crash that punctures the battery, whether from the front, rear or side, leak as little harmful, flammable battery fluids as possible.

Different OEMs will doubtlessly pursue different options, and optimisation of the vehicle as a whole, Olsson admits, will definitely require OEMs to adopt multi-material strategies. But for force-absorbing components, AHSS makes the most sense. The major benefit over competing materials such as aluminium and carbon fibre is cost – Olsson argues that AHSS can produce crash-resistant components with the same weight as aluminium at a lower cost. What’s more, all OEMs and Tier 1s are completely familiar with forming and welding steel, making it ideal for insertion into a complicated, multi-material mix. Furthermore, no equipment overhaul is necessary.

Self-driving steel

The materials industry will also be paying close attention to the rise of autonomous driving, but how this might affect the material mix is less certain. As Olsson points out, one of the main goals behind development of self-driving technology is to greatly reduce the number of collisions, injuries and deaths on the road, and the potential is clear. But could this change the way safety is approached by OEMs?

We should expect a certain number of autonomous cars by 2030, but at that stage, the transition will be far from complete. We also believe that a combination of legislation and customer demand will mean that crash performance will remain high like it is today, regardless of autonomous functions

Speculation continues, says Olsson: “It’s not yet clear how the future of autonomous cars will pan out. One school of thought suggests that in the future, it will be impossible for cars to crash, and as such there will be little need for advanced high strength steels.”

Great news for safety, but not so great for SSAB. Luckily, says Olsson, this is an unlikely outcome which in any case would take several decades to materialise. For all the hype around the self-driving revolution, the evidence, he argues, suggests that any change will happen very slowly.

“We should expect a certain number of autonomous cars by 2030,” he says, “but at that stage, the transition will be far from complete. We also believe that a combination of legislation and customer demand will mean that crash performance will remain high like it is today, regardless of autonomous functions. Ultimately, people want to feel safe in the car they’re sitting in.”

Customer expectation alone means a decreased risk of collisions is unlikely to dampen the necessity for quality crash performance. Of course, Olsson adds, the hope is that deaths and injuries on the road can be reduced, but moving forward, the company’s offering will remain as important to customers as ever.

Ultimately, people want to feel safe in the car they’re sitting in

Indeed, says Olsson, the general demand for AHSS is only increasing as OEMs seek to toughen vehicles without adding weight, and earn the highest safety and efficiency ratings they can. Car production is increasing worldwide, and there is currently no firm indication of autonomous cars meaning less traffic on the roads, and thus less demand for materials, says Olsson.

Emerging markets catch up

But while material suppliers consider how best to navigate the autonomous, electrified landscape, so too will they need to pay attention to the needs of emerging markets such as India, which in terms of safety and crash performance has traditionally lagged behind European and North American markets. In 2013, road-related fatalities in India came to 16.6 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to Germany’s score of 4.3.

This will change in India from October 2017 onwards, with the introduction of the Bharat New Vehicle Safety Assessment Program, the world’s tenth NCAP programme which will standardise components such as airbags, ABS and seat-belts, as well as front, side and rear impact testing. This, says Olsson, will be the beginning of the end for manufacturers appearing to build the same vehicles in different markets, but working to different safety standards.

Steel is already the most cost-effective material, and here we see two competing technologies – cold-formed steel and hot-stamping technology. And cold-formed gives a clear cost advantage

“If you consider a conventional car which is built in several locations around the world, the exteriors match regardless of where it was made,” he says, “but up until recently, the interiors are completely different. In many cases, you find mild steel being used, which is the cheapest material available.”

New regulations will require higher-strength steels, and Olsson believes SSAB can provide this whilst respecting the extreme cost-sensitivity of a market like India. “Steel is already the most cost-effective material, and here we see two competing technologies – cold-formed steel and hot-stamping technology,” he explains. “And cold-formed gives a clear cost advantage.”

Therefore, says Olsson, SSAB’s focus will be on cold-forming, whereas other competitors are leaning towards hot-stamping.

This, he concludes, will give the company a clear advantage moving forward. This, combined with a larger role in designing vehicles, can help OEMs to produce safer cars in markets like India. The earlier SSAB can become involved, he says, the bigger a benefit an OEM can reap, particularly in emerging markets where education around the material may still be required.

This article appeared in the Q3 2017 issue of Automotive Megatrends Magazine.