And its all thanks to a breakthrough by one supplier.
Every once in a while a technological breakthrough is made in one area or another and brings about cascade of innovation, kind of like how the first computers led to the Internet, which then led to the smartphone. Other times, it’s slow advances made on many fronts that cause a new era to be ushered in. And thanks to tireless work and a little bit of competitive pressure, Japan’s Nippon Steel Corporation has just made a technological breakthrough that could change the auto industry in both of these ways.
While you may not have heard of the company, you’ve almost certainly driven a car that uses its namesake product: steel. But there’s a problem with steel. Even though it’s cheap, it’s also heavy. Cars have been gaining weight drastically as consumers demand new features and larger vehicles at the same as regulators require more robust crash structures and fuel-saving models, which many times the inclusion of a heavy hybrid drivetrain.
All told, the average car has gained 880 pounds in the last two decades. So when Ford decided to cut weight and use aluminum to make the body of the F-150, Nippon Steel panicked thinking that the rest of the industry would soon follow suit. And while a widespread switch to aluminum has yet to happen, the company has built a highly impressive product that could halt the change entirely, according to Japan Times.
Lightweight steel is Nippon Steel’s miracle product, which it showed off using a car body built from the new material. On the scales, that car body weighed 30% less than one built with regular steel. "There’s this idea out there that steel is an old-fashioned material, but it’s not true,” Nippon Steel’s laboratory research head, Nobuhiro Fujita, said at a briefing in Yokohama.
To make the lightweight body, Nippon Steel used a half-dozen different grades of steel, the strongest of which can withstand 290,000 pounds of pressure per-square-inch without breaking. But the standout materials alone aren’t responsible for the cut, Nippon Steel’s engineers also redesigned certain components so they could be built using less material without losing strength. The doors on the company’s show car, for example, are made using a combination of thin steel and reinforcement bars, allowing them to weigh 20% less than counterparts built using typical construction methods.
The company’s ultimate aim is to ensure steel is a material that automakers will use far into the future. To accomplish that, it has plans to build a car body that weighs 50% less than typical car bodies we see today. It’ll do that by mixing small amounts of plastics into the metals it's making to push the boundaries of what's possible.