Big changes are coming to vehicle architectures and the way the auto industry looks at lightweighting, emissions and fuel economy. Electrification, advanced driver-assist systems and autonomous features are forcing automakers to rethink vehicle design from top to bottom.
In a recent Wards survey, 44% of automotive engineers and designers said that in 10 years, vehicle materials and architectures will be “totally different” than they are today and 67% said they would be “somewhat different” in just five years. In an industry where 4-year product cycles are the norm, five years is just around the corner.
We did not ask questions about Tesla’s shocking Cybertruck concept because little public information was available during our survey period, but it is yet another sign change is in the wind.
While details still are sparse, it is known the Cybertruck’s body is made of ultra-hard, cold-rolled stainless steel that reportedly is twice as thick as the aluminum body panels on Ford’s F-150 pickups and three times as thick as the steel body panels used on conventional mainstream fullsize pickups.
Wards collaborated with the American Iron and Steel Institute on the survey and questions, which looked not just at future materials use but also cost factors and how changing automotive technology will impact the allocation of future research and development resources.
When asked “Where is your company concentrating the majority of R&D and engineering resources?”, 42% of OEM respondents checked “battery-electric vehicles” and only 18% said “lightweighting.”
Almost all respondents (94%) reported the new focus on making electrification and self-driving technologies has had an impact on the funding of activities like body & chassis engineering and R&D, including 46% who report it has had a major impact.
“These responses reinforce what AISI has seen in the industry, with 94% confirming that electrification and automated driving technologies are impacting core functions of R&D, body and chassis engineering,” says Jody Hall, vice president-Automotive Program, American Iron and Steel Institute.
“This diversion of resources makes it even more critical that automakers have reliable materials like advanced high-strength and 3rd Gen steels and manufacturing processes to ensure mass efficient, safe and durable vehicle architectures.”
A thought-provoking question we asked relates to managing BEV performance and emissions strategies: “If the cost of EV batteries and the cost of watts per kilowatt hour continue to decrease, will automakers stop paying a premium for lightweighting to increase range?”
Responses were mixed here. Suppliers tend to think OEMs will never pay extra for anything, but you can find examples where automakers do pay premiums for lightweight materials. Ford’s aluminum-intensive F-150 is a key example (although no other pickup manufacturer has followed suit) and the new cost-sensitive C8 Corvette has at least one major carbon-fiber structural part.
When we broke down our 230 responses into strictly OEM high-volume, low-volume and EV-startup categories, the data sets became too small to be statistically significant, but we found some answers that were at the very least interesting:
- Lightweighting appeared to remain a higher priority for low volume and EV start-up companies.
- When integrating EV battery packs into vehicle structures, availability of space and battery protection were the top priorities across all the automaker segments.
- Not surprisingly, the start-up companies seemed to place more importance on material advances, body and chassis forming and joining techniques and technologies than established automakers.
- Traditional OEMs were more inclined to agree that with EVs, lightweighting is reaching the limit of optimized solutions, meaning they were more likely to spend money on more efficient and powerful batteries than increasingly lighter body structures.
All responses in our automaker sample said they would pay a premium for lightweight materials in the right circumstances, but overall, respondents agreed that when it comes to materials, cost is king.
When we asked about the three principal drivers of materials portfolios, “cost” by far was the most popular response, followed by mass/weight and durability.
“Cost and mass have been the two primary drivers in the auto industry for decades,” says AISI’s Hall. “The order of priority varies year-to-year and platform-to-platform based on government regulations, such as fuel economy standards and competition in the market. However, in the end, cost is always most important. Once the targeted mass has been achieved, automakers look at how to reduce vehicle cost,” Hall says.
Methodology, data collection and analysis by Informa Engage, on behalf of Wards and AISI. Data collected November 26 through December 14, 2019. Methodology conforms to accepted marketing research methods, practices and procedures.