Concept car illustration courtesy of WorldAutoSteel (

A review of recent automotive news reveals several key areas to cover. The lightweighting of cars with high-strength steel or aluminum is one important initiative, which is related to another – fuel economy. The third revolves around the impact of the tsunami on the Japanese auto industry.

Cut the Fat
In just a week or so, the 10th Annual Great Designs in Steel (GDIS) seminar will be held in Livonia, Mich. At that venue, the FutureSteelVehicle (FSV) program presents production technologies and steel grades to the industry’s advanced high-strength steel (AHSS) products. Over the past decade, the use of AHSS by the auto industry has outpaced all other lightweighting options.

Making vehicles lighter by using AHSS has an additive effect. As vehicles shed pounds, engines can be lighter because it takes less to power the lighter vehicle. Brakes can be lighter because it is easier to stop a lighter vehicle. Batteries for hybrids or electric cars can also be lighter as the vehicle sheds pounds.

Needless to say, all of this trimming of the fat results in a more fuel-efficient vehicle. Experts predict that the use of lightweight steel will save 0.37 quad of energy by 2020. A quad is equivalent to over 8 trillion gallons of gasoline or nearly 300 trillion kWh of electricity. Five new 2011/2012 gas-powered vehicles are professed to reach the 40 MPG threshold by a variety of innovative techniques. Several specifically mention the widespread use of lightweight steel as one of the ways they got there. Obviously, aluminum usage is also important.

Development continues on new and improved ways to make metals lighter. Researchers at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University have found a way to make metal lighter while recycling a toxic waste. Metal-foam composites have been created using fly ash – a toxic by-product of coal combustion – as an additive. The metal foam material can be used to replace solid aluminum and magnesium in certain automotive applications. While it’s likely these “inclusions” will not make the steel stronger, tests have found that the lightweight foams absorb more energy than the solid materials.

What’s Happening?
As I write this editorial, Toyota has announced that it is rationing aftermarket parts for dealers in the U.S. They also said that they expect “some production interruptions” at North American factories due to problems obtaining parts from Japan. Similarly, Honda said that it “will begin to adjust production levels, cutting hours at some plants in half.” Subaru cut shifts in half at its Lafayette, Ind., plant to conserve parts, and as of the day of this writing, Nissan is reassessing North American production. The tsunami effect has hurt domestic manufacturers that rely on Japanese-made parts as well. GM was forced to temporarily close a pickup factory in Shreveport, La., and a related engine line in Buffalo due to a lack of imported parts from Japan.

Speaking of GM, they recently announced the sale of its share of Delphi Corp. back to its former parts subsidiary for $3.8 billion. This will result in a $1.6 billion gain in its first-quarter financial results.

In March, Ford was expected to surpass GM, becoming the top U.S. auto seller. Industry experts say this has more to do with GM falling than Ford gaining. However, with two of the five 40 MPG models – 2011 Fiesta SE SFE and 2012 Focus SFE – Ford has positioned itself well for the higher-priced fuel we are currently experiencing.

The Association of Global Automakers, a lobbying group representing Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Hyundai, Kia, Subaru, Mitsubishi, Suzuki and others has petitioned the U.S. government to require the continued availability of E10 fuel – 10% ethanol, 90% gasoline. The feds have approved E15 for 2001 and newer vehicles. Many have expressed concern that the E15 usability tests were not adequate and that prolonged use will damage fuel lines or the engines themselves.

The Future
A quick glimpse into future technology reveals that materials are a key component. The following list helps paint the picture: honeycomb-shaped, polyurethane-spoked tires; electromagnetic motors to replace shocks and springs; magnesium exoskeleton; graphene-based ultracapacitor for energy storage; aluminum-oxynitride windows, roofs and doors; carbon-fiber composites; lithium-ion batteries; integrated solar panels; inflatable metallic structures for better crash protection; and enhanced turbocharger/supercharger technology to name a few.IH