Tata Steel vision of the future role of steel in automotive industry (US)

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Tata Steel recently published a whitepaper entitled “Charging towards a sustainable future?” which sets out the company’s views on Europe’s future powertrain mix and the role that steel can continue to play in the industry. just-auto’s Calum MacRae met with the report’s author, Chris Wooffindin, the company’s automotive marketing manager, and his colleague Dr Nick Coleman, Principal Researcher in to sustainability at Tata Steel, to discuss the report’s contents at the 2017 Frankfurt IAA.

just-auto: One of the key things you highlighted in the report was that cost and affordability has prolonged steel’s existence in the auto sector. How much longer do you think that can go on for?

Tata Steel: So we have to look at it from some application areas of steel. Traditionally, steel’s been used in body construction, wheel construction, chassis construction, seats and so forth. As well as the conventional powertrain. Steel has had a lot of success in that because of the cost effectiveness of it.

Going forward, you have to look at it again in three areas. You have to look at it from, let’s say, a body point of view. What materials or what life does steel have in that particular application? When we looked 10-15 years ago everyone said, “Well actually to make that electric vehicle work, you’re going to have to go to carbon fibre. You’re going to have to go to aluminium etc.” But now, apart from the odd exception, of high-profile but very low volume, there’s not been a huge change in materials used. Most electrified vehicles have been retrofitted to existing platforms, which are generally steel and the reason is steel’s cost-effectiveness.

Actually steel does a very good job, steel is quite lightweight. People think of it as a heavy material. Density-wise, okay, it’s not aluminium but in terms of using it to the correct design over the years we have saved a lot in weight. Additionally, vehicles aren’t getting any lighter becuase they’re getting bigger, they’re getting safer. So in actual fact, the weight’s going up but steel has helped to offset that.

That’s not to mention that batteries themselves in electrified vehicles are very heavy…

Yes and we think at some point you’re going to have to marry the expense of the battery against the expense of the body structure itself, and affordability comes back into it. If people want to buy mass-market vehicles, it’s going to have to be at price tag they’re used to. The mix between how much the body structure costs and the powertrain will change, I think, going forward. The powertrain now is the biggest single part of a vehicle’s cost and going forward an electric powertrain is going to cost even more. So that means that you haven’t got really as much money left as you might think to actually pay for the body materials.

What impact do you think induction charging will have?

If infrastructure does catch up with technology, and we go to something like induction charging, there are studies showing that you won’t need a big battery in the future. If you’re continually trickle-charging your vehicle, why do you need such a big battery? Induction charging is game changing as “range anxiety” will be a thing of the past and it will enable electric vehicle adoption in megacities where charging with a cable is nearly impossible.

How realistic do you think induction charging is? Will we see it in the next 10 years?

I don’t think we’ll see it at wholesale in the next 10 years. The assumptions in our fuel mix roadmap call for more infrastructure in place by 2030 as the target changes. Thus far there’s only one target confirmed and that’s for 95g of CO2 by 2021. We know full well that will change over time. We don’t know exactly when, we don’t know the extent. But even by 2021 some OEMs will need to have 20% of their cars electrified to meet the target. With the target increasing beyond 2021 somebody needs to enable infrastructure development because without that people simply won’t buy the cars. The other interesting thing with electrification is diesel’s position in Europe is changing rapidly.

Last month sales were for diesel cars were down 13% or so in Germany. They’ve been a key component of OEMs’ planning for 2021. What do you think the diesel change is going to do for electrification? 

It’s no coincidence a lot of the OEMS, even today, or certainly during the year, have been backing away from the diesel proposition. The press from this last year has not helped its cause in terms of longevity. It has paved the way for the OEMs to really come out with their EV propositions. You’re still going to need these engines for some time. I think the mix will change more in favour of petrol in the short-term because of these issues. And I’m not sure how many people are developing internal combustion engines to any great extent these days. Everybody knows to get to a certain solution, you’re going to have to have some electrification in your mix. You’re going to have to divert attention to that.

Some see BEV penetration at only 3-4% by 2030, what’s your view on that? 

The reason why we did a roadmap in the first place was we need to prepare ourselves for our customers and what they need to do. We looked at maybe 20 different projections and the spread was huge. To the point where you could not get any consensus of opinion. That’s why we did the bottom up analysis.

I think 3-4% is completely false. Even to get to the 2021 target you’re going to need to do a lot more than that in terms of new car sales. If the projections go down to 70g CO2 or even 60g by 2025 or 2030 in Europe, then for the internal combustion engine you’re coming up against the laws of diminishing returns in terms of squeezing efficiency gains out of it.

From your point of view, do you think steel’s in a much better position than maybe it was 5-10 years ago, when everyone was predicting material changes?

I’d say so. I’d say 10 years ago, we were thinking actually if weight is so important to enable that kind of vehicle we developed a whole raft of new steel grades to really help with that and it has helped. If we were selling, which we don’t anymore, long products, so engineering steels and specialised steels for forges or castings and machined goods, that’s a diminishing market. But what we’re seeing is that they’ll start to be replaced in part by electrical steels for motors.

What are electrical steels?

Electrical steel is a key component determining the performance of the electric drive motor and Tata Steel has developed a world-leading range of high-performing electrical steels for this area. It just has the right magnetic properties, basically, for a motor application.

We’ve got a full suite of materials that are needed for electrical motors now. OEMs are just learning about those steels, how to use them. The motors today in electric cars are pretty commoditised and bought off the shelf. We don’t think that will continue going forward. We think OEMs are going to develop their own electric motors in the same way that they tailor their powertrains. They’re coming to grips now with these electrical steels because the different products we have offer different properties. They can be used to make the electric motor more efficient, more accelerative or give the vehicle more range for example.

You don’t envisage a future where there’s just one platform, just one electric vehicle platform and then lots of different top hats?

No we don’t see it like that. I think of it in the same way you can buy a one litre or you can buy a V6 in a given range today, I’ll think they’ll be the same with the electric motors going forward.

On balance you don’t think BMW will be repeating their experiment with CFRP?

They learnt a lot from using that material. But there are still lots of challenges and they actually said that they will only use discrete applications of it in the future. The problem with the carbon fibre reinforced plastic in the future is the sustainability piece. If you bring that into an LCA (life cycle assessment) model, it’s horrendously expensive CO2 wise to manufacture in the first place, as well as being costly to manufacture. The biggest problem the OEM’s going to have is when we move to LCA is they’re going to be more responsible for recycling their vehicles. Right now with CFRP you can’t do anything other than shred and landfill. That’s not going to be acceptable at some point in the future, if not already.

That’s the strength of steel its recyclability compared to other materials. It gives it some benefits in that life cycle context. You can always tell where the material is because it’s magnetic!

So LCA is a move on from where we are with end of life targets and end of life vehicles directive? 

LCA takes it a bit more broader and tries to quantify the environmental impact right through from raw material extraction all the way through to recycling at end of life. Rather than just quoting it as a recovery target or recycling target, it tries to account for the environmental impacts across the entire supply chain. So it’s a bit more holistic that just focusing on the kind of end of life recycling target.

If there’s a more holistic approach going to be adopted in the future, presumably that’s going to have an impact on electric vehicles and hybrid vehicles as well because they’re very wasteful in the way they’re manufactured using the LCA approach?

Potentially. That’s why we’re looking for improvements in battery technology, looking for improvements in engine technology as well, to try and reduce those environmental impacts on manufacturing. There’s quite a lot of work being done on looking at how, when you redesign something, what will be the environmental impact of that. There are lots of different ways that you can use batteries, for example. Some of those materials may be more favourable from a life cycle perspective than others.

Do you have a timeline when LCA is going to be looked at more by the industry?

The regulations for post-2021 targets are under review by the commission at the moment. There’s an open question mark about how LCA will factor into that. Something that kind of the steel industry is promoting is a voluntary life cycle assessment approach where an OEM, if it wishes to do so, could undertake a life cycle assessment. Then maybe credits would be attained against target based on the fact that a life cycle assessment has been carried out.

Is there one industry body looking at everything and looking at the competing demands? It’s bit like if you improve CO2 a trade-off is more NOx…

The European Commission has a project called the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF). The idea of that concept is that products that you sell in Europe will have some sort of environmental badge associated with them. That badge might then come down to some aggregation of different environmental impacts. It just depends on the views of different stakeholders. There’s no right answer. It’s more a political decision in a sense rather than a technical.

Tata Steel are involved in a PEF pilot on metal sheet. We’re looking at how that would factor in for the kind of environmental label that might be produced for steel products sold into the market.

Posted in Strategy.

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