GirlDriver, USA

GirlDriver, USA
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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

America Produces Lots of Steel

And much of it is used to make your automobile. 

Let’s assume that you have never thought about what materials make up your vehicle. Fair enough: We’re looking for convenience, style, and connectivity when we shop for a car.  Most drivers don’t investigate how they are being protected. Engineering is left to the automaker and safety to the ratings of The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, which assure us that in a crash we will be as safe as the situation allows. 

There are reasons to know more: We travel at speeds of 65 mph or more much of the time. Traffic fatalities rose 7.2% from 2014-2015, the largest increase in decades.  In the first six months of 2016, there was a 9% increase over 2015.  Although there is hope that highway deaths will decrease with technology advancements such as active safety features, it doesn’t hurt for us to get familiar with what’s under our ride’s skin. Therein lies the true beauty—the tough and intelligent underpinnings.

Here’s the case for steel. In large measure, steel is what protects us.  Steel has strength, the ability to conduct an impact up into the roof rails and away from passengers and different weights for different purposes. 

While we have lost many steel manufacturing jobs here in the U.S.—about 400,000 since the 1960s—most of the steel used in vehicles sold here comes from the U.S.  The job losses in steel production are thought to be because of trade, but those jobs went away because of technological advancements—fewer people were needed. 

Our demand for steel runs at about 100 million tons a year and about 80 million of those tons are made here. In the manufacturing of steel alone, the industry provides 137,000 jobs in places like Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

The auto industry uses anywhere from 20-25 million tons of U.S. steel as well as steel from other places including Germany, Japan, and Korea. Steel is perceived as less advanced than materials such as carbon fiber, magnesium, and aluminum. “Educating people about steel is the industry’s great challenge,” says Dave Anderson, senior director, automotive market and long products like wire and bar at The Steel Development and Marketing Institute. “The steel industry continues to reinvent itself. In the 1970s and 80s, for example, there were only seven different grades of steel; now there are over 200.”

Applications like the chassis require high-strength steel. If a crash occurs, that steel gets stronger with impact. A different type of steel is used on the sides of a vehicle because it takes the impact of a crash and conducts it up the side frame to the roof, protecting the passengers. Lightweight steel can be formed and designed into the body skin.  Changes to the microstructure of the material and other innovations are what allows steel to be constructed for these different applications. These innovations improve vehicle performance in fuel efficiency, affordability, durability, and quality. 

Advanced High Strength Steel is, according to SDMI,  the fastest- growing material in automotive design. The advances enable automakers to produce lighter vehicles that meet safety standards and it also gives them fuel efficiency. Steel is also a material that has been used in auto factories since the beginning. They don’t need new equipment or techniques to form it, weld it or join it. But, steel prices are also going up and that will show up in the cost of the car.

Structure may not be top of mind when you purchase your next vehicle. But it helps to understand how you are protected, which translates to your comfort level with the safety of your vehicle. And it’s good to know that steel is made right here in the USA.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Electric Car: How’re We Doing?

Not to put a damper on the growth of EV sales, but there has been an inordinate amount of attention paid to them in the past couple of years.  Yes, they have been steady. In 2010-2011, just over 17,000 EVs were sold.  It was the Chevy Volt, the Nissan Leaf and the Mitsubishi iMIEV.

In 2015, 115,000 were sold but now there are 26 models to choose from.  So yes, the sales of EVs are growing and more companies are offering them. 

Part of the impetus for companies to offer them is the U.S. government mandate to reach a corporate average fuel economy of 54.4 mpg by 2025.  That may seem far off, but in terms of automotive development, it’s about two model changes away.

But the sales from 2014 to 2015 declined 6.5 percent because of cheap oil and they are still a minuscule proportion of what we buy. In 2015 we sold over 17.5 million new cars and trucks in the U.S.  Electric plug-ins were 0.75 percent of those vehicles.  

Remember that electric cars aren’t new.  They were first developed in practical terms in the second half of the 19th Century.  In the U.S., a Des Moines chemist named William Morrison debuted the first successful electric car around 1890. It held six passengers and had a top speed of 14 miles per hour. Over the next few years, more electric vehicles from different automakers were on the road across the U.S. New York City even had a fleet of more than 60 electric taxis. By 1900, electric cars were at their heyday, accounting for around a third of all vehicles on the road. During the next 10 years, they continued to show strong sales. 

Electric cars along with hybrids and gasoline powered cars grew in popularity with the increasing interest in personal vehicles.  But it was Henry Ford who basically made the electric car a thing of the past (And he had even worked on an electric car with his friend, Thomas Edison.)  His gasoline powered car, the Ford Model T, was mass produced and affordable.  That helped to end the competition along with improved roads and cheap oil. 

Some might recall the EV1 produced by General Motors almost two decades ago.  I remember listening to then chairman of GM, Bob Stemple, talking about the future being here.  It wasn’t the future and even non-car enthusiasts can tell you that GM crushed every EV1 and sent them to the junkyard.

The top sellers in 2015 were the Tesla S (25,000), the Nissan Leaf (17,000) and the Chevrolet Volt (15,000) and the BMW i3 (11,000).  General Motors is expecting the Chevrolet Bolt to change the landscape of who can buy and afford an electric vehicle and I expect that they are on to something.  The Bolt is a compact car that has a200 mile range on a full electric charge, will be priced at around $30,000 and will be 80 percent charged in 30 minutes.

“The Bolt is more than just a car,” said Mary Barra, G.M.'s chief executive. “It’s an upgradeable platform for new technologies.

Today we’re talking about a number of technologies to power our vehicles. It is becoming more mainstream to believe that fossil fuels are not the future.  Hydrogen, natural gas, batteries and plug-in electric vehicles are coming to market—slowly, but they are coming. And Barra’s comment about the car becoming a platform for new technologies is where the discussion is sure to lead.