TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Automated, connected, electric and shared vehicles will have a profound impact on society and how new vehicles are designed and built, but it is unlikely their materials composition and manufacturing techniques will change dramatically in the foreseeable future, experts say at the CAR Management Briefing Seminars here.
Carbon-fiber composites and additive manufacturing might find their way into the mix in a small way, but today’s well-proven mixed-material strategies are likely to continue to rule the day, even though steel, aluminum and plastics will continue to battle each other for every pound of material.
Steel usually is the material forecasted to disappear in the future in favor of lighter-weight materials, but it always comes back with new high-strength alloys that keep the material competitive in properties and price, says Jody Hall, vice president-automotive program, American Iron and Steel Institute.
She points out that five years ago, when Ford introduced its aluminum-intensive F-150, many predicted all F-150 competitors would be forced to imitate Ford. But since then, seven major pickups have been introduced and they all continue to have steel-intensive designs.
Steel has a long history of collaboration with automakers to develop new material grades and manufacturing processes for quick implementation. Global steelmakers also collaborate with each other to make sure their projects complement each other and do not compete, Hall says.
Steelmakers have developed more than 200 grades of automotive steel for various uses and classifications. “No other structural metal has been able to do this,” she says.
However, Mario Greco, chairman-Aluminum Transportation Group, Aluminum Assn., not surprising, disagrees. He says since 2014 many new vehicles have been introduced with aluminum closure panels and other major parts.
Jose Chirino, vice chair-automotive team, American Chemistry Council, adds the newest GMC Sierra Denali fullsize pickup was introduced with an optional carbon-fiber bed.
“The polymer composite material is lightweight and this benefit cascades throughout the vehicle, improving fuel efficiency, engine power, braking distance and many other features. This is the chemistry that happens when steel, aluminum and plastics join forces,” Chirino says.
Polymers and composites will play a key role in future ACES vehicles in bumpers and other body parts because sensors and radar systems can “see” through these materials. The Volkswagen Atlas has a front-end module made of a composite material, Chirino adds.
Hall acknowledges these arguments but says new ACES designs will eliminate B-pillars to make getting in and out easier, and this new architecture will favor the structural properties of steel.
The Aluminum Assn.’s Greco (pictured above, left) is not convinced. “You are talking about a shift, going from body structures which are using multi-materials already and optimized architectures. We’re going to see how they change to different architectures. There will be new variants, and new eco systems will want new materials.”
Greco argues the industry will move to even more variants of sustainability, safety and value that will include such things as aluminum battery enclosures and total lifecycle carbon production, where he says aluminum has an edge.
Both the steel and aluminum industries argue they are the greenest when it comes to total carbon production from initial manufacturing to reuse, a complex calculation that looks at such things as how much electricity primary aluminum smelters get from hydropower.
And on this note, all the panelists agreed it would be best to have a third party make a final determination.