Here at WorldAutoSteel, we have been studying the changes in the automotive industry for several years, focusing particularly on ride sharing, autonomous, electric vehicles and steel’s role in that marketplace. George Coates, Technical Director for WorldAutoSteel and The Phoenix Group, has been leading that effort and today contributes an article on the disruption of future mobility to the industry and the great opportunities we see for steel in meeting the challenges providers will face. We hope you enjoy the read, and we welcome your thoughts and comments. What changes and impacts do you envision for vehicle manufacture? How do you feel about the world of autonomy?
We’re approaching a critical milestone in automotive history when what we know as normal is about to change significantly. Future Mobility describes the revolution that’s already begun. We’re rethinking transportation from the movement of a vehicle to a more efficient concept for moving people and things. We’re about to discover the social advantages of connected, autonomous, shared and electric vehicles. And we’re completely changing the way we view transportation.
By 2030, electric vehicles (EVs) will be mainstream—not just within the premium segment, as they are today. EV’s will be popular and available across all vehicle variants and prolific in the commercial vehicle industry and in public transportation. Owners and fleet providers will experience the lower costs of electricity, lower maintenance costs, and the lower overall total cost of ownership (TCO). Fully autonomous or self-driving vehicles will introduce design freedom never experienced before, with the removal of the steering wheel, foot pedals and conventional dashboard. Communication and comfort will be re-imagined, with a vehicle that’s no longer designed around the driver but designed to serve the needs and comfort of the occupants, who are now users instead of owners.
With the rise of mobility services such as Uber, Didi, and a host of others, vehicle ownership is fast becoming an option. In a very short time, especially in urban areas such as China’s mega-cities, it is becoming cost-efficient to subscribe to a monthly ride share service for all of your transportation needs.
Bill Russo, CEO of China-based Automobility, in a December 2018 article, Competing in the Digital Internet of Mobility, notes that the digital connectivity of these vehicles will open up profit opportunities well beyond the vehicle hardware. He says “An expanded understanding of mobility use cases and tailoring of the mobility hardware ‘form factor’ to the particular mobility need will be a way to create a value proposition that is rooted in the unique riding experience. In the user-centric world where users are passengers, the focus shifts from traditional driver-centric design to a user-centric productivity space. Instead of traveling in the cockpit, we will move in business class or economy class, depending on our preferences and budget.” Cities will be re-imagined in new social opportunities associated with autonomy, as these vehicles will serve the under-served, and infrastructures will shift in purpose to move people, as opposed to moving vehicles.
Where does steel fit?
The steel industry plans to be right in the middle of this revolutionary change. Fleet owners who provide ride hailing and ride sharing services need to manage the total cost of ownership, while maximizing the user experience for added revenue. To be profitable, they’ll want durable, lasting structures that are affordable to own, provide the user motion as well as emotional comfort, while being efficient to operate, and environmentally friendly – and steel is the only material that meets all these requirements.
As always, steel is needed for the crash safety structures, and now add battery protection. Our market intelligence shows that due to the high cost to municipalities and regional governments, autonomous-only vehicles will be limited to dedicated areas for a long time to come. Meanwhile, vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure connectivity will result in dramatic improvements in accident avoidance and reduced fatalities.
Because it will take many years before all vehicles on the road have these technologies in play, the need for passive safety will remain for the foreseeable future. Developing a structural design for the passenger compartment becomes challenging, since there’s a now a need to strike a balance between occupant safety and the occupant freedom. This is enabled by removing the driver and controls from the interior. Steel will be needed to provide the unique properties of both crash energy absorption and deflection, while also managing the loads associated with passengers in multiple and diverse seating configurations. Steel has the ability to provide needed strength while keeping the material thin, which lends more room in the passenger cabin for new seating arrangements and more seats. And battery housings made from steel will provide structural integrity for crash management, while also preventing battery pack damage and leakage.
Lightweighting will continue to be important in an effort to balance smaller battery sizes with maximum range. The steel industry has been and will continue to develop products, such as the ever-growing family of Advanced High-Strength Steels (AHSS), to meet both the mass reduction and the safety targets, affordably. With content innovation and the amazing flexibility of the Iron (Fe) element, researchers still have vast development possibilities for new steels that are stronger, more formable and cost effective.