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Steel still relevant? More than ever, says supplier

Michael Nash discusses innovations in steel with Brad Davey of ArcelorMittal, who outlines the role that new material products can play in forward-looking mobility concepts

The list is long and growing of OEMs, suppliers and technology companies with licenses to test autonomous driving technology on public roads in various parts of the world. And the pressure’s on – several have announced plans to bring their first autonomous passenger cars to market within a few short years.

2021 is proving to be a key date; Ford, for example, has said it will produce a high-volume, fully autonomous vehicle for ride-sharing purposes in 2021, the same year that BMW, Intel, and Mobileye plan to ‘bring solutions for highly and fully automated driving into series production’. Others, too, are looking at 2021 as the start of commercial autonomous drive programmes.

The rise of autonomous driving technology will see active safety and advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) play an increasingly important role. These technologies are already becoming more widespread in all vehicle segments, and are no longer confined to high-end luxury models.

While they often take the limelight, active safety features can only do so much in the event of a crash, and many experts believe that crashes will still occur despite the potential mass rollout of autonomous vehicle technology. Blake Zuidema, ArcelorMittal’s Director Automotive Product Application, has said, “While vehicle autonomy and connectivity will improve safety and reduce injuries due to vehicle crashes, no technology is perfectly reliable. There is no reason to believe that vehicle autonomy will prevent all crashes. When they do occur, even in those much more infrequent occasions, occupants will still need the strength and safety of steel to protect them.” Furthermore, he said, the scenarios that cannot be anticipated are the scenarios for which there remains a need for a strong steel safety cage in autonomous vehicles.

Right now, we don’t see any limits to what we can do with steel. We are working on grades beyond what we have currently announced, and we think steel will remain the dominant material of choice in vehicle design

As such, the continued development of passive safety features is just as important as ADAS technology, and will continue to be even as highly autonomous vehicles hit the market. That’s the view of Brad Davey, Chief Marketing Officer for the steel supplier’s global automotive business, who believes that vehicle safety starts with choosing the right materials in design.

“Autonomous vehicles are going to change the world as they start to roll out,” Davey predicted. “The timeframe for it is quite uncertain, but it will certainly bring issues that may not have been foretold. For example, there is likely to be an increase in the number of miles that vehicles travel, because it makes driving so convenient.”

A recent report by the US Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) suggests that the miles travelled by light-duty passenger cars is projected to grow at an annual rate of 1.01% between 2015 and 2035. With this increase in miles comes the increased likelihood of a crash occurring. Furthermore, increased mileage means that consumers will spend more money on fuel. As a result, reducing fuel consumption through vehicle lightweighting is likely to remain a crucial strategy for OEMs, alongside the use of crash-absorbent materials in certain areas. According to Zuidema, “Autonomous vehicles will be subject to the same fuel economy regulations as non-autonomous vehicles and the weight reduction and fuel economy improvement afforded by today’s advanced steel solutions will still be needed. Steel still provides the safety and lightweighting needed for autonomous vehicles at a lower cost than any other lightweight material.”

Four pillars for future-proofing

With these trends in mind, Davey outlined a number of approaches that ArcelorMittal is taking to prepare for the future of the automotive industry and the rollout of autonomous vehicles.

Today, vehicle occupants sit in distinct locations in the vehicle, which allows OEMs to design accordingly and identify areas that need crash absorbent or high-strength steels. But if people are strapped in differently, safety becomes much more challenging

“There are four pillars that drive our innovations,” he explained, “the first of which covers new products and solutions.”

ArcelorMittal is preparing to roll out the next generation of its core steel grades, Usibor and Ductibor. An aluminium-silicon coated press hardened steel, Usibor 2000 boasts greater strength than its predecessor Usibor 1500. It is designed for use in strength-critical passenger compartment parts, such as rockers, pillars, roof rails and cross members. Ductibor 1000 is also a high-strength press hardenable steel, but it offers enhanced energy absorption in localised areas of the vehicle. This makes it suitable for use in front and rear rails as well as lower B-pillars.

Both of these grades of steel are available for qualification testing in Europe, and Ductibor 1000 is also available for testing in North America. Commercial production commences in 2017.

“The second pillar is our work on downstream technologies with various different partners,” Davey continued. “Here we have solutions like laser welded blanks for cold formed steels and press hardened steels.”

Autonomous vehicles are going to change the world as they start to roll out. The timeframe for it is quite uncertain, but it will certainly bring issues that we may not have foretold

Also known as tailored blanks, laser-welded blanks (LWBs) are sheets of metal that combine several grades of steel, each of which can vary in thickness and have different coatings. This is often done in vehicle design in order to cater to highly specific requirements in localised areas.

The third pillar sees the company focus on quality and service leadership on a global basis for its customers, said Davey, “and then finally we are always working on expanding our geographical footprint.”

The safety challenge

Looking ahead, Davey stressed the uncertainty that comes with the rise of self-driving vehicles. “It will likely lead to some level of increased automotive production, but we don’t think that in and of itself will have a measurable impact on ArcelorMittal,” he admitted. “When it comes to autonomous cars, the hot topic right now is safety. I don’t see the automotive industry reaching zero collisions, so there will always be a role for safety solutions.”

Among the companies considered as forerunners in self-driving vehicle technology is Tesla. However, amidst the enthusiasm for its Autopilot system, which enables semi-autonomous vehicle operation, the company has been the subject of a series of negative headlines.

When it comes to autonomous cars, the hot topic right now is safety. I don’t see the automotive industry reaching zero collisions, so there will always be a role for safety solutions

In May 2016, a Tesla driver was killed when his vehicle collided with a tractor-trailer in central Florida. This prompted an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which concluded that it had not found a “safety-related defect trend” with the Autopilot system. The crash was preceded by a fatality in January 2016, when a 23-year old Chinese driver was killed when his Tesla Model S collided with a street-sweeper truck at highway speed. Other Autopilot-related crashes have also been reported.

Such incidents aside, Davey thinks that self-driving technology could struggle in certain conditions. “When there is black ice on the road and the tyres lose grip, it doesn’t really matter what sensors or computers you have on board,” he stated. “Therefore, the inherent safety of the vehicle through its use of crash absorbent and strong materials will remain. This is where steel will continue to play a key role.”

OEMs and suppliers are currently exploring how autonomous  driving could also allow for occupants – no longer tasked with driving the vehicle – to adjust their positions; this includes not only seat location but also switching from upright seating to a bed-like configuration, for example. Several forward-looking concepts and prototypes, such as Volkswagen’s Sedric, the Mercedes-Benz F 015 and the Yanfeng Automotive Interiors XiM17 concept include highly flexible and adaptable seating platforms.

The inherent safety of the vehicle through its use of crash absorbent and strong materials will remain. This is where steel will continue to play a key role

“Today, passengers sit in distinct locations in the vehicle, which allows the OEM to design accordingly and identify areas that need crash absorbent or high-strength steels,” Davey observed. “But if people are strapped in differently, then the typical crumple zone areas may change, for example. Safety becomes much more challenging.”

No limits?

Despite the challenges presented by autonomous driving and future mobility, Davey remains confident in steel’s ability to outperform the variety of other materials vying for a place in vehicle design: “Right now, we don’t see any limits to what we can do with steel. We are working on grades beyond what we have currently announced, and we think that steel will remain the dominant material of choice in vehicle design.”

In Zuidema’s words, “Autonomous vehicles will continue to need the safety, affordability, light weight, and environmental friendliness of advanced steel body structure solutions well into the future.”

Clearly, any proponent of a particular material would favour theirs over another, but many of a material’s properties are best exploited when used for specific applications, rather than for an entire vehicle. It often goes unmentioned, for example, that the aluminium-bodied Ford F-150 sits on a high-strength steel frame. And it is in the direction of a multi-material mix that the automotive industry appears to be heading. Steel may be one of the oldest automotive materials, but the efforts of its suppliers have ensured that it remains highly relevant.

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