Rippey: Steel Comes Out Ahead in the Race for Lighter, Fuel-Efficient Vehicles

Posted April 11, 2013 at 5:13pm

The future of American manufacturing and, perhaps more significantly, the rebound of this nation’s steel industry was the focus of testimonies recently made to the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade. I, along with other steel industry executives, covered critical issues ranging from trade and infrastructure to energy and environment; yet, one of the key headlines to emerge was steel’s essential and growing role in enabling the more fuel-efficient automobiles of tomorrow.

While U.S. automakers are continuing to grapple with how to meet tough federal fuel- efficiency goals by 2025, new evidence is pointing to steel as one of the more promising solutions. Increasingly efficient engines and electric powertrains will do much to get cars to the pending 54.5 miles per gallon Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards. But, they certainly can’t do it all. Steel, as new evidence shows, has the proven potential to bridge the gap.

Technologically advanced steel products — those available today and those in development — hold the key to making the lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles of tomorrow. In fact, new data shows that advanced high strength steels (AHSS) and ultra high strength steels not only can deliver “lightweighting” benefits but also can do so at a lower cost and with less environmental impact than alternative solutions.

This may be surprising news to those who presumed the lighter weight cars of the future would be made of aluminum, magnesium or carbon fiber. While these alternatives share steel’s potential to achieve needed vehicle weight reduction, they simply don’t deliver the whole package. The steel products available today, and the products ArcelorMittal and others are developing for the future, will make cars that are safer, lighter and more fuel-efficient, while maintaining affordability for America’s new car buyers.

According to the CAFE Compliance and Effects Model, commonly referred to as the Volpe Model — which the U.S. EPA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration developed to set their 2012-2025 standards — the weight reduction offered by AHSS provides one of the largest improvements in fuel economy and the single largest improvement in efficiency per dollar spent than any other fuel economy improvement technology. AHSS can provide a 7.2 percent fuel economy improvement at little or no additional cost to the automaker, which is up to six times more cost effective than aluminum.

Cars made from these advanced steel grades can also be produced using the auto manufacturer’s existing infrastructure with little need for additional investments in retooling auto production facilities. Many alternative materials require new equipment and a greater investment of time and money for production. This fact only adds to the conclusion that steel offers the most cost-effective solution for achieving the 2025 CAFE standards.

But, that’s not the end of the story. In 2025, with a 54.5 mpg fleet, a steel car will offer a smaller carbon footprint than a car made of an alternative material, such as aluminum or carbon fiber, thanks to steel’s production phase being less energy intensive than other materials. The production of one ton of aluminum, for example, requires five times the energy required to make one ton of steel. Since the body structure accounts for about one-third of the curb weight of a typical vehicle, an aluminum car requires twice the amount of carbon dioxide to manufacture as a car made of steel. Add to this the fact that steel is easily recyclable — about 30 percent of the world’s annual steel production comes from recycled scrap. These are important points to consider when evaluating solutions to meet new fuel-efficiency standards designed to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

When the new CAFE standards were first announced, proponents of materials like aluminum, carbon fiber and magnesium proclaimed it was “game over” for steel. But, a close look at the facts and new data show that depiction couldn’t be farther from the truth. With aggressive new fuel-efficiency targets on the horizon, steel’s venerable role as the foundation of the automobile is on track to be every bit as relevant and essential in 2025 as it is today.

Mike Rippey is president and CEO of ArcelorMittal USA.