Automotive Steel – A History of Steel Within the Automotive Industry

Within the automotive industry, steel has long been held as the standard material of choice. Steel has the benefit of being not only low-cost compared to other materials, but also highly adaptable very strong.


However, steel has begun to go out of fashion in recent decades as automakers have tried to reduce the overall weight of their vehicles. This is mainly due to an increased emphasis on lowering automobile emissions and increasing fuel efficiency.


Aluminium has risen in steel’s stead in recent years, as manufacturers are using it to conform to new regulations surrounding emissions and efficiency.


In this article we will be looking at the changes to regulation and the impact that this has had on the automotive industry in regards to it’s use of steel. We will also cover how steel producers have reacted to these challenges over the past fifty years.


A Little Bit About the History of Steel Usage in Vehicle Body Structures and Closures


Since the early 20th century, steel has been the material of choice for motor vehicle developers across the globe. In the early 1900s, steel only competed with other materials, such as wood and aluminium, for the body construction of vehicles. By the 1920s, at least in North America, steel had definitively won the battle for ‘material of choice’.


Steel maintained its dominance until the 1960s, when the automotive industry began seeing radical changes. Regulators began to demand safer, cleaner and more fuel efficient cars. This lead to an innovative period where manufacturers sought different materials to improve performance, reliability and comfort.


How has Steel Usage Changed Over Time Within the Automotive Industry?


The World Steel Association has estimated that the automotive sector makes up approximately 12% of steel consumption worldwide. The industry is diverse, but there are several big players such as ArcelorMittal, who make up 16.7% of global steel sheet for automotive parts.


Within the automotive industry, steel makes up over 60% of the weight of an average automobile. It is expected, however, that changes to regulation are going to lead to a drop in that number, as governing bodies look to restriction emissions and opt for fuel efficiency.


Although the motor vehicle revolution came a long way to improving quality of life, the injuries and deaths associated with automobiles rose dramatically, and the emissions from cars took a toll on the environment. Customers, also began to expect increasing comfort and speed in their vehicles. This lead to a significant change in the application of vehicle design in the late 20th century.


As the automotive industry boomed in the post-World War II era, consumers began to demand increasing safety and environmental performance. In the United States of America, the Federal Clean Air Act (1970) was passed. The act was aimed at reducing emissions and air pollutants through the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency).


At the same time the High Way Safety Act was passed by the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). This lead to energy absorbing bumpers, restraint systems (seat belts) and improvements to structural design to improve absorption from front and side impacts.


Fuel efficiency became a concern as of 1973, when the Arab oil embargo lead to a steel rise in gasoline prices. As gasoline as risen over the years, efficiency has become a major selling point. The demand for more fuel efficient cars, lead to an increase of imported smaller cars, such as the Volkswagen Beetle and the Toyota Corolla. Political solutions were soon implemented to address these issues within the North American market.


In the early years of these changes, high-strength steel alternatives were discussed, however aluminium and other materials soon began to gain traction. As the regulatory pressure increased over the 1980s, lead to downsized cars and increased fuel efficiency. There was an increasing pressure to reduce to may and cost. The was the turning point for automakers.


In 1984 the plastic-skinned Pontiac Fiero was an indication of a radical shift within the industry. Soon a range of sport coupes and minivans began to sport various materials beyond steel. Alternative materials soon inspired steel manufacturers to discuss how they could keep steel as a viable material for automotive production.


At the turn of the millennium, HSLA steels (High Strength Low-Alloy Steel) held great promise for the steel industry. However the formability and the spring-back remained obstacles to its adoption. Although, HSLA still hasn’t solved the steel industries automotive sector problems, there is a lot of potential in some of the research and development being made by larger companies across the globe. In Australia, these larger companies may include the likes of BlueScope Steel and BlueScope Sheet Metal Supplies.


In the next section, we will discuss a little more about the impact that these regulations have had on the automotive industry in general – particularly concerning emissions reduction and fuel efficiency.


What are the Effects that Emissions Reduction and Fuel Efficiency Regulations are Having on the Automotive Industry?


Automakers are currently prioritising compliance with regulations formed by government bodies surrounding emissions and efficiency. Environmental concerns are the primary driving force behind these changes. In Australia, specific targets for emissions reduction and fuel efficiency have been set to try and tackle the issue.


Australia is not the only country, however, that are adapting to these changes. The United States of America has put a focus on improving fuel efficiency. They are expecting that by 2025, automobile fuel efficiency will be at 54.4 miles per gallon, as opposed the the 27.5 miles per gallon it was when they started their initiative in 2012.


In the European Union, they have also targeted vehicle emissions. They are hoping to lower the amount of carbon emissions by reducing it from 130 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre in 2015 to 95 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre by 2021.


One of the key ways that automakers are looking to make these changes is to invest in materials that will make their vehicles lighter. These regulations have opened up opportunities for aluminium manufacturers to take some of the sizeable market share that steel has since occupied.


What Materials are Competing to Take Steel’s Place in the Automotive Industry?


Plastic composites and aluminium have both become more prominent in the production of vehicles across the globe, as regulation has become more stringent. Steel, however, being a heavy material, has noticeably become less popular with automakers.


One example of this is the Ford F-150 pickup truck. By using aluminium, Ford has reduced 25% of the weight of their 2015 Ford F-150 pickup trucks. This is only one of several examples within the automobile industry. Aluminium has risen in use by 44.3 pounds per vehicle on average between 2012 and 2015, and before that had risen by 10 pounds between 2010 and 2012.


The average aluminium content in cars in North America, according to a study by Ducker Worldwide, is set to increase up to 19% by 2025. Aluminium is light metal, so in terms of volume this equates to a rise of 6.6% from 2015 to 26.6% in 2025.


Given the changes happening in regulation, it is expected that aluminium will continue to rise in use as steel drops off in popularity amongst automakers. However, there is still the obstacle of cost. Aluminium is more expensive than steel. While automakers are keen to reduce weight, they are also trying to mediate this with costs.


The affordability of steel is something that the steel industry are hoping to use to their advantage in future, by investing a range of advanced high strength steel options.


What Types of Steel Will Be Used in the Future of the Automotive Industry?


Major Australian steel companies, such as BlueScope Steel or BlueScope Sheet Metal Supplies, are investing significantly in a wide range of advanced high-strength steels. The hope is that they can solidify their position within the automotive industry.


Advanced high-strength steels have a minimum tensile strength between 500 to 800 MPa (Megapascals). Compared to other traditional steels, these steels are significantly lighter whilst retaining the benefits of being strong.


Steel suppliers across the globe are working with OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) to develop solutions for car manufacturers based around steel in order to reduce weight as well as increase safety within vehicles.


One example of this is the ’S in Motion’ steels developed by ArcelorMittal, which have allowed a 19% weight reduction in typical C-Segment vehicles. ArcelorMittal has also developed other types of advanced high-strength steels tailored specifically for the automotive industry, including Usibor and Fortiform. ArcelorMittal, is not the only company investing over 30% of their Research and Development budget to automotive solutions. Many steel suppliers across the globe have renewed their efforts to retain the automotive sector.


The competitiveness of steel within the automotive industry is still to be seen. However, investment in new steel solutions are going a long way to keeping steel as the material of choice for automakers. The future of steel of within the automotive industry is still a promising one.

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