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.