Steel is Central to the Evolutionary Change in Transportation
The future has always been that place where minds can dream big, with the likes of science fiction authors Arthur Clarke and Isaac Asimov as virtual companions. We’ve experienced the result of the world’s dreamers, and we only need pull out our smartphones to experience those dreams coming to life. And now, those dreams have arrived in the automotive industry such as we’ve never witnessed before. The very essence of mobility is changing, and with it, how this more than 100-year-old transportation will evolve.
From personal transportation to service
For over 100 years, the automobile has been a personal possession to most commuters in the world. Either you owned one or you didn’t. With the rise of mobility services such as Uber, Didi and a host of others, ownership is fast becoming an option. In a very short time, especially in urban areas such as China’s mega-cities, you may find yourself subscribing to a monthly ride share service to transport you and your family to the office, school and after-hours events. Future mobility services will be autonomous and in continuous use during the day. They will be scheduled for the needs of multiple users instead of spending hours parked.
These changes are driving other changes, such as how manufacturers are designing vehicles. For most of the past 100 years, driver experience was the key focus. “We’re now beginning to see a shift to the passenger,” Bill Russo, CEO of China-based Automobility, said in a February 2017 article entitled, A Perspective on the Future of Mobility and Autonomous Driving. “Beyond mobility, a fully autonomous vehicle’s key benefit will be the experience it gives to the user, and the primary benefit which comes from delegating the task of driving to the car is PRODUCTIVE TIME. As such, while the purpose of the car as a transportation device has not changed, the very concept of how to treat and offer convenience-oriented features to the occupant is different: the autonomous vehicle is built with a ‘user-centric’ mindset, as opposed to a ‘driver-centric’ mindset.”
Like prophecy fulfilled, at the 2018 Geneva Motor Show, W Motors and Chinese Iconiq launched their autonomous ride share MPV concept, Iconiq Model 7, which was quickly labeled the first vehicle focused on the passenger experience. Large touch screens, facial recognition, Microsoft Azure Cloud technology, and fully reclining business class-like rear seats are all focused on the passenger. W Motors CEO Bruno Lambert said the vehicle will recognize its passengers by picking up their smartphone signals as the car approaches. Mobility providers will compete by using unique service features like these to differentiate them from other mobility providers. Mobility will become like other electronic technology, always upgrading to new features and functionality to lure customers. Imagine that you will be craving your friend’s new autonomous ride subscription, just like you envy her shiny new iPhone now.
Where does steel fit?
What we are witnessing, right now in this time in history, is an evolutionary change of an industry. And the steel industry plans to be right in the middle of it. As always, steel is needed for the mechanical parts of the car for safe structures. Now add battery protection. George Coates, Technical Director, WorldAutoSteel notes, “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, affordable to repair and maintain, efficient to operate, and environmentally friendly. Steel is the only material that meets all these requirements.”
Our market intelligence shows that due to the high cost to municipalities and regional governments, autonomous-only vehicle roads 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. But, it will take many years before all vehicles on the road have these technologies in play. Consequently, until every form of transport on the road is autonomous and connected, the need for passive safety will remain for the foreseeable future. Finding the right passenger compartment structural design to provide safety for new seating configurations is the new challenge. 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.
Lightweighting will continue to be important in the balance of minimizing battery size and maximizing range. The steel industry has been and will continue to develop product, 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 Fe element, scientists haven’t finished tapping the possibilities for new steels that are stronger and yet more formable.
We are truly at a time when the sky is the limit on design options, and the industry is poised, and is acting on, a new vision for mobility. It’s an exciting time to be a part of this industry, and steel will continue to grow and evolve to support it.