The amount of steel used in cars has dropped like a rock in recent years, and steel makers are casting about for a lifeline. They may have found it in the Steel E-Motive, a new fully autonomous electric vehicle designed through a collaboration between the trade organization WorldAutoSteel and the environmental engineering firm Ricardo.
Steel & The Lightweight Autonomous Electric Vehicle Of The Future
Steel may not seem like the best choice for the EV of the future, mainly on account of its weight. Indeed, the global auto industry is pivoting into advanced materials, partly motivated by the search for lightweight car parts. Lighter weight and improved strength improve fuel efficiency in gasmobiles. The electric vehicle version of that is longer battery range.
That leaves steel the odd person out. The Center for Automotive Research has intensively researched the lightweighting trend, and in a recent report, CAR listed the drivers:
Materials Systems: novel low–cost, high–performance composite sandwich construction with honeycomb cores, next–generation low–cost carbon fibers, 7xxx series aluminum, gen–3 steels, graphene, and nano–based composites.
Manufacturing: significantly lower–cost high–volume fully–automated polymeric composite manufacturing methods (e.g., HP–RTM, Spray Transfer Molding (STM), straight and curved pultrusion, toolless manufacturing, and high–volume additive manufacturing.
Enablers: multi–material (dissimilar material) joining for assembly and disassembly, and predictive computational and design optimization tools.
Ouch! Ultra-long battery range bumps up against the amount of time one driver can spend behind the wheel on a given day, but throw fleet vehicles and autonomous driving into the mix, and sky’s the limit. An autonomous shuttle, for example, could ferry passengers for 24 hours straight without needing to recharge.
Steel Meets The Autonomous Electric Vehicle Challenge
That leaves steel the even odder person out, but that doesn’t mean there is no light at the end of the tunnel for steel.
WorldAutoSteel is the auto industry branch of the World Steel Association, the membership roll of which includes a lineup of 20 heavy hitters, including ArcelorMittal, Hyundai-Steel Company, Tata Steel, ThyssenKrupp Steel, and United States Steel Corporation.
If you’re seeing some overlap there between steel making and auto making, that’s not an illusion. For example, Hyundai has been making its own virgin steel for car parts since 2006, and Tata has been tapping the appetite for steel cars in India.
That brings us to the E-Motive steel electric vehicle. WorldAutoSteel teamed up with Ricardo to create the Steel E-Motive, a futuristic self-driving machine that looks like it escaped from a sci-fi movie.
The steel gray palette of the new electric vehicle would be a good fit for the dystopian side of the genre, but in color the E-Motive could pop out against drab urban backgrounds, which would be a plus for fleet vehicles that double as mobile advertising.
The Self-Driving Electric Vehicle Of The Future
The thinking behind the E-Motive electric vehicle is part strategy and part technology.
A ticking clock is driving the strategy because the window for effective action on climate change is closing, and governments are (finally) beginning to take action. So, the E-Motive is designed around do-able technologies that will be available on a mass scale by 2030. For WorldAutoSteel that means steel and more steel.
Here, let’s have E-Motive explain itself:
“The steel will enable the engineering team to meet mobility-as-a-service operational, safety and environment requirements: for example, its strength and formability supports a unique low-height coverless and integrated battery case, and flat-floor interior – which also aids better accessibility.
“A unique rocker design offers superior crush force and protection not only to the occupant but the high voltage battery internals.
“Steel also delivers cost, weight and sustainability benefits over a conventional battery pack using alternative materials, while meeting all current and future anticipated safety standards and legislation.”
As for the autonomous driving angle, they are talking Level 5.
How Sustainable Is Steel, Actually?
Ricardo is tuned into the Science Based Targets initiative, so the firm has contributed an evidence-based lifecycle emissions analysis to the effort.
“A life cycle assessment for a vehicle covers raw material extraction, manufacturing, use and end of life for the product. It also includes an assessment of the energy source used to power the vehicle,” explains Ricardo.
According to WorldAutoSteel, so far steel is winning the emissions race for structural materials used in cars.
“Steel has the lowest carbon footprint of any material used in automotive structures. Primary steel production emits 7 to 20 times fewer greenhouse gases compared to other materials,” they say.
They may be on to something, at least for now. Carbon fiber, for example, is very energy intensive to manufacture and more difficult to recycle compared to steel. The material’s light weight and longevity could even the score for automotive uses, but that case is yet to be made definitively.
The Case For An All-Steel Battery-Electric Vehicle
Fans of hydrogen fuel cell cars may be disappointed to learn that the E-Motive electric vehicle will run on a battery, not a fuel cell.
Still, there is a hydrogen twist to the E-Motive story, and it could settle the question of which is better: primary or secondary steel making?
Primary steel making is the most common method in use today. It involves pushing oxygen into molten iron, which lowers its carbon content. Secondary steel making is not as ubiquitous, but the process is still fairly common. It deploys an electric arc to liquefy iron.
And, this is where it gets interesting. ArcelorMittal has been developing a new electric arc system that runs on green hydrogen instead of coal, and it’s not the only steel maker pivoting into green hydrogen (read more about the green hydrogen trend here and here).
Hyundai has also been working on a hydrogen powered electric arc system with green hydrogen. Apparently the entire steel industry is pivoting in that direction, so keep an eye on that.
In the meantime, E-Motive is not about settling the score on battery vs. fuel cell electric vehicles. It’s about deploying at-hand technology to cut greenhouse gas emissions from cars. A case is building for the use of fuel cells in trucks, locomotives, and other heavy duty applications, but the industry consensus seems to be that the car buying public is not quite ready to adopt fuel cell cars en mass.
With that in mind, let’s note what Owain Davies, the Vehicle Architecture leader for the E-Motive project, says about the battery for the new vehicle.
Davies notes that a fully autonomous electric vehicle can and should adopt different battery designs geared around the MaaS (Mobility as a Service) model.
Specifically, the E-Motive is designed as a walk-in vehicle with a flat floor, so it feels more like stepping into a subway car than sliding into a sedan.
The E-Motive leverages the global steel industry’s Advanced High-Strength Steel (AHSS) to meet the demands of this particular approach to automotive design, as Davies explains.
“AHSS solutions for high voltage battery packaging minimise deformation in the battery enclosure volume, protecting the modules and power electronics from damage and reducing the risk of thermal runaway by offering greater thermal containment,” he says. “Additionally, AHSS use is allowing us a greater level of flexibility when making battery design decisions around the unique vehicle architecture for autonomous MaaS applications.”
Among safety and performance considerations, Davies lists “numerous options for pack architecture and integration,” and “reduced build takt times for pack assembly from cell to vehicle (takt time refers to high volume manufacturing that meets consumer demand).
This all sounds very interesting, but don’t hold your breath for the E-Motive to hit the mass market. WorldAutoSteel is banking on additional battery improvements and other technology tweaks to come on line before the target launch year of 2030.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Photo: courtesy of WorldAutoSteel.
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