Saving the Environment, One Body at a Time

The twin efforts to limit the consumption of fossil fuel and the production of so-called "greenhouse gases" like carbon dioxide have taken auto makers in many directions, most of them involving more efficient powertrains. Hybrids, diesels and direct-injection gasoline engines are all front-burner projects with most car companies these days. But in the quest for more environmentally friendly automobiles, another effort might also yield positive results. Global steel companies have aims to reinvent the steel automobile body to make it lighter and more efficient, which in turn will help reduce fuel use and emissions.

The International Iron and Steel Institute's automotive group, WorldAutoSteel, has created the Future Steel Vehicle project and made the announcement of its formation at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change conference in Bali. The initiative will develop steel auto body concepts that take advantage of alternative powertrains, such as advanced hybrid, electric, and fuel cell systems. The goal of the research is the development of safe, lightweight steel bodies for future vehicles that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions over the entire life cycle. It will address not only the vehicle itself, but also the processes and transportation costs that go into the manufacture and eventual recycling of vehicles.

"From a total vehicle cradle-to-grave life cycle perspective, steel is the most effective material for reduced greenhouse gas emissions," said Ian Christmas, International Iron and Steel Institute's secretary general. "With this project, we will develop concepts that should help automakers reduce GHG emissions over the entire vehicle life."

WorldAutoSteel has commissioned the world's largest independent automotive engineering partner, EDAG Engineering + Design AG, headquartered in Fulda, Germany, to complete the first-phase Engineering Study that is a key part of the program. Development work will be based at EDAG's Auburn Hills, Mich., facility, and will examine the changes implied and enabled by new powertrain systems that may radically alter the structure of automobiles. The spadework will also provide input for selection of Phase II design concepts. Phase I results are expected in 2008.

Future Steel Vehicle is the fifth in a series of auto steel research projects. The previous four were undertaken over the last decade to demonstrate the application of new steel grades, design techniques and manufacturing technologies for light vehicle structures. Each illustrated how advanced high-strength steel in high-volume steel applications could significantly reduce vehicle weight while improving safety and performance and maintaining manufacturing affordability.

"These previous research projects revolutionized the kinds of steels normally applied to auto bodies, as well as demonstrated innovative steel vehicle designs," said Edward Opbroek, WorldAutoSteel director. "The application of these research findings is seen globally in many vehicles on the road today. We expect the Future Steel Vehicle project to stimulate the same development in upcoming alternative vehicles."

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about the auto industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France. He has a special interest in lightweight bodies.