Steel SUV Frame Credit: SMDI

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The Value of Steel in the Automotive Industry

As the automotive market looks for innovative ways to meet future Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) requirements, which will nearly double the average light vehicle fuel economy to 54.5 mpg by 2025, the North American steel industry continues to invest in advanced materials and manufacturing technologies that have led to the introduction of a wide variety of new automotive steels. The steel industry is meeting this need through the development of new advanced high-strength steel (AHSS) grades, whose unique metallurgical properties and manufacturability enable the automotive industry to affordably meet increasingly stringent requirements.

Studies show that AHSS steel grades are growing faster in new automotive applications than aluminum and plastic—steel’s main competitors. Each year, new car models are introduced using lighter-weight, higher-strength steel components that provide a cost-effective answer to the demand for increased safety and fuel economy.

Recent projects, such as FutureSteelVehicle, which introduced more than 20 AHSS grades, show that the latest steel grades, combined with innovative processing methods and design optimization techniques, enable steel to achieve a 39 percent mass reduction in many applications, virtually equivalent to mass reduction levels achieved by aluminum. There are several other examples of AHSS technologies, including the front lower control arm that is the same weight as the aluminum version at one-third less cost.

Mass reduction with AHSS not only conserves material but helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the full life cycle of the vehicle, including manufacturing, driving and recycling. Life cycle assessment data shows that steel, which makes up nearly 60 percent of the average North American vehicle, generates fewer manufacturing emissions than other automotive body materials. Vehicles using high-strength steels provide significant reduction in driving emissions, as well as total life cycle emissions.

If currently available AHSS were applied throughout the present U.S. automotive fleet, greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles would be reduced by approximately 12 percent—an amount greater than the emissions generated by the entire American steel industry today. This reduction in emissions is already underway as automotive designers around the world use increasing amounts of AHSS in their vehicles.

Why Steel Cars Offer a Great Environmental Advantage

Automobiles are the most recycled consumer product. Each year the steel industry recycles more than 14 million tons of steel from end-of-life vehicles. This is equivalent to nearly 8.5 million new automobiles. The steel recycling rate for automobiles is near--or above--100 percent annually. This recycling record, along with developing lighter, stronger steels continues to yield environmental benefits which are sustainable.

Even while these accomplishments are impressive, the steel industry continues to work to develop new, advanced steel products and applications that will yield even greater energy benefits to manufacturers and their customers. Advanced high-strength steels (AHSS) are strong, lighter, and produced with light life cycle impact, helping automakers decrease a vehicle’s life-long carbon footprint.

New steels benefit vehicles in three vital ways during a vehicle’s life: manufacturing, driving, and end-of-life recycling. Consequently, they are the fastest-growing material in new vehicles today. The use of AHSS reduces a vehicle’s structural weight by as much as 25 percent and can cut total life cycle CO2 emissions by up to 15 percent more than any other automotive material.

And because it is fully recyclable, steel used in today’s cars can help automakers reduce the carbon footprint of tomorrow’s vehicles, as well.

New vehicle regulations are an important step in moving towards a cleaner economy. However, future proposals for more aggressive standards fail to recognize the importance of all phases of a vehicle’s life, called The Life Cycle Assessment approach, or LCA, in minimizing a vehicle’s GHG emissions. LCA looks at the total greenhouse gas emissions from all phases of a vehicle’s life – from its manufacture through its disposal – and can help automakers make better decisions in the selection of materials for future cars and trucks.

The LCA process shows that steel, which currently makes up about 60 percent of the average North American vehicle, generates fewer emissions than other automotive body materials and therefore steel-intensive automobiles will continue to be the lowest emitting vehicles on the road.

When one considers the total vehicle life cycle, steel is the most environmentally effective choice for automakers due to its relatively low energy and emissions during the manufacturing phase, significant mass reduction during the driving phase, and 100 percent recyclability at the end of the vehicle’s life. The use of current grades of AHSS can reduce a vehicle’s structural weight by as much as 25 percent and can cut total life cycle CO2 emissions by up to 15 percent more than any other automotive material. With continued steel and technology developments, greater efficiencies will be realized.