March 20, 2017

Someday Became Today: Steel in the Transportation Revolution

It’s Monday morning. You grab your bag and coffee mug and head to your car for your least favorite part of the day: the dreaded commute to work. The average person loses 52 minutes per day to a work commute. What if you could get that time back? Someday you will, and it’s sooner than you think. Within the next twenty years, the car you take to work every day will be able to drive itself, allowing you to be more productive or relaxed during that morning commute. Not only that, it will take less than half the time to travel with traffic gridlock eliminated. What once was a daydream is rapidly becoming our new reality.

The Transportation Revolution

We’re in a revolutionary time in transportation and manufacturing. Not since the invention of automobiles has there ever been so much opportunity for advancements in vehicle design and performance. It sounds outlandish, but in an estimated three to five years, we’ll start to see a mixed fleet of traditional cars, driver assisted cars and completely autonomous vehicles on the roads. We already have autonomous on-demand shuttle buses in select municipalities and college campuses. Every major auto company, from BMW to Ford to Honda, has self-driving elements in nearly all of their 2017 models. Audi announced that they’re making SAE (the Society of Automotive Engineers, the agency that developed the level classification system for autonomous cars) Level 3 cars this year and expect to have fully autonomous vehicles by 2020. Just recently, GM announced that via their partnership with Cruise, they developed the first production design for an entirely autonomous car suitable for manufacturing in mass quantities.

The Interconnectedness of Auto & Steel

Dr. Steve Kan, Professor of Computational Solid Mechanics at George Mason University, is the Director of the Center for Collision Safety and Analysis (CCSA) and has been at the forefront of safety modeling studies in the transportation industry for over 20 years. Dr. Kan has been monitoring the changes taking place in the auto industry, with a focus on what the evolution of transportation into an autonomous state means for passenger safety, material selection, vehicle design and even city planning. The pace of change is so rapid that it requires an unprecedented amount of interconnectedness between all of these sectors if the developments are to meet safety and technological standards.

These advancements also present a unique set of challenges to the transportation sector. The impending integration of autonomous cars into the current fleet of vehicles means that from a safety standpoint, we have an entirely new set of variables to study and compare. Maintaining some constants through this period by continuing to use materials with predictive qualities, such as steel, is important. According to Dr. Kan, “We are entering a time frame where we don’t know what the future vehicle is going to look like. Therefore, it is very, very important that vehicle designers actually work on the design and architecture of the vehicle using the materials and the tools they have with predictive capabilities, and work with steel manufacturers to see what kind of materials they can produce and allow them to have the flexibility to design a different type of architecture to suit future needs.”

The New Automobile

Vehicle design as we know it is completely transforming. Traditionally, vehicles have mimicked the design of horse-drawn carriages, where there is a driver and passenger in the front seats and passengers in the back seats with all passengers facing forward. Since drivers aren’t necessary, passengers in autonomous cars will be able to sit facing any direction they’d like. This allows for the cars themselves to be built in an entirely different shape. For example, Volkswagen is making an autonomous version of their iconic minibus. The new minibus will recall some of the aesthetics of the original, but with high tech features like a steering wheel that retracts when not in use and front seats that swivel 180 degrees to face passengers in the back.

New design features and materials will require new research and safety testing for future potential impact scenarios. The auto industry has to adjust their concept of design, plus meet consumer demands and regulatory standards. Dr. Kan explains, “Traditional vehicle design is based on history, and vehicle safety protection design technology is based on accident data (using those vehicles). And right now, we don’t know what that data is or what’s going to happen in the future. So, vehicle manufacturers are starting to think outside the box and getting away from the square and rectangular shape into a rounded shape. So now you’re not just worried about an accident in the front, back, or sides, but it could happen in different ways. These are the new challenges. So, you’ll have a lot of new innovative design features coming into the vehicle for the future and lots of new technologies.”

The Road to Safer Vehicles

The safety concerns facing vehicle engineers and designers aren’t just about how collisions will occur with autonomous cars, but what happens after the impact. In the US alone, approximately 35,000 people die each year in auto accidents. Eliminating human error with autonomous cars is expected to exponentially reduce that number. However, accidents will still occur in configurations that we’ve not seen in modeling studies to date. To reduce the unknown factors for autonomous vehicle safety, it’s critical for auto manufacturers to work with materials where the predictive capabilities are already known. Dr. Kan believes that advanced high strength steel has the most potential for performance and reliability for the future of automotive manufacturing: “In order to understand the (safety) performance of the vehicle, we really need to understand the material properties and material characteristics of these new ultra-high strength materials.” He continues, “I think it’s very, very important that the vehicle engineers, the researchers, as well as the steel manufacturers work together to build a working relationship and design process, not only to develop a vehicle, but also to develop future materials as well.”

Materials will have to be as technologically and compositionally advanced as ever, and extremely reliable for safety modeling. Dr. Kan explains, “There’s an increasing effort currently in the research community for developing the future of advanced high strength steels. These steels have the advantage of ultra-high strength capabilities as well as ductility so that they will not prematurely rupture.” Working with engineers in the auto manufacturing industry and the steel manufacturers is key to understanding how to achieve advanced design performances. According to Dr. Kan, we already know how steel performs in collision testing, so it’s the most viable and efficient choice for vehicle engineers to use to develop autonomous cars with the requisite level of crashworthiness. Given that multiple grades of steel will be necessary for testing and strategic use in different parts of the vehicle, it’s important for vehicle engineers to work with a steel producer that has the capabilities and agility within their manufacturing systems to produce multiple grades of steel in small quantities, rather than two or three kinds in massive amounts.

The Future

This vision of the future isn’t happening in a distant ‘someday,’ because ‘someday’ has already become today. We’re only a few years away from the beginnings of a mass scale shift to autonomous cars. The significant improvements we’ll see in our day-to-day lives will be even more beneficial for our children. If predictions on the pace of autonomous vehicle development are correct, kids that are born this year may not ever learn to drive. Instead, that generation will need an entirely new fleet of vehicles, and those vehicles will require advanced high strength steel as part of the manufacturing process.

Autonomous technology isn’t just about improving lives; it’s also about saving them. In the amount of time that it’s taken you to read this article, 34 people died in auto accidents. By removing the human variables, we’ll likely see the number of fatalities plummet. Autonomous vehicles will also reduce carbon emissions, change city and infrastructure design, and quite simply, revolutionize how we live. With so much to look forward to, it’s never been a better time to be in the auto industry. Or in the steel industry.