BY KATE McLEOD
Let’s assume that you’ve never thought about what materials make up your vehicle. Fair enough: We’re looking for convenience, style, and connectivity when we shop for a car. Most drivers don’t investigate how they are being protected. Engineering is left to the automaker and safety to the ratings of The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, which assure us that in a crash we will be as safe as the situation allows.
There are reasons to know more: We travel at speeds of 65 mph or more much of the time. Traffic fatalities rose 7.2 percent from 2014-2015, the largest increase in decades, and the first six months of 2016 demonstrated a 9 percent increase over 2015. Although there is hope that highway deaths will decrease with technology advancements such as active safety features, it doesn’t hurt for us to get familiar with what’s under our ride’s skin. Therein lies the true beauty — the tough and intelligent underpinnings.
Here’s the case for steel. In large measure, steel is what protects us. Steel has strength, the ability to conduct an impact up into the roof rails and away from passengers, and different weights for different purposes.
While we have lost many steel manufacturing jobs here in the U.S. — about 400,000 since the 1960s — most of the steel used in vehicles sold here comes from the U.S. The job losses in steel production are thought to be because of trade, but those jobs went away because of technological advancements; simply put, fewer people were needed in manufacturing.
Our demand for steel runs at about 100 million tons a year and about 80 million of those tons are made here. In the manufacturing of steel alone, the industry provides 137,000 jobs in places like Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
The auto industry uses anywhere from 20 to 25 million tons of U.S. steel as well as steel from other places including Germany, Japan, and Korea. Because steel is perceived as less advanced than materials such as carbon fiber, magnesium, and aluminum, “educating people about steel is the industry’s great challenge,” says Dave Anderson, senior director, automotive market and long products like wire and bar at The Steel Market Development Institute. “The steel industry continues to reinvent itself. In the 1970s and 80s, for example, there were only seven different grades of steel; now there are over 200,” he explains.
Applications like the chassis require high-strength steel. If a crash occurs, that steel gets stronger with impact. A different type of steel is used on the sides of a vehicle because it absorbs the impact of a crash and conducts it up the side frame to the roof, protecting the passengers. Lightweight steel can be formed and designed into the body skin. Changes to the microstructure of the material and other innovations are what allow steel to be constructed for these different applications. These innovations improve vehicle performance in fuel efficiency, affordability, durability, and quality.
Advanced High Strength Steel is, according to SMDI, the fastest-growing material in automotive design. Its properties enable automakers to produce lighter vehicles that meet safety standards and it also gives them fuel efficiency. Steel is also a material that has been used in auto factories since the beginning: They don’t need new equipment or techniques to form it, weld it, or join it. But, steel prices are also going up and that will show up in the cost of the car.
Structure may not be top-of-mind when you purchase your next vehicle. But it helps to understand how you are protected, which translates to your comfort level with the safety of your vehicle. And it’s good to know that steel is made right here in the U.S.A.