The automotive industry globally is witnessing an ever-increasing focus on vehicle lightweighting, essentially aimed at improving fuel economy as well as on emission reduction
And to meet all these objectives, new-age automotive materials play an important role. It is important to understand that India has always been a cost-sensitive market and though there is no doubt that it is steadily moving towards being a value-sensitive market, cost continues to be an important criterion towards selection of automotive materials for manufacturing. However, it is important to understand that cost alone is not driving the use of newer raw materials for production of automotive components.
The need to leverage alternate automotive materials has been necessitated by increasing regulatory-mandated changes. The automotive industry has been witnessing a steady adoption of sustainable materials in the construction of various components of vehicles such as body-in-white, chassis, body panels, tyres, wheels, interiors panels, seats and windows. And the objective behind developing futuristic automotive materials has been majorly driven by the focus on bringing about cost reduction of the raw material. Besides the focus on trimming down raw material cost, the larger goal of enabling new-age materials in the automotive space is to improve the total cost of ownership.
Globally, the automotive industry is witnessing a R&D focus on polymer compounds and composites. This increasing push for polymer compounds can be attributed to the fact that these materials have the capabilities to achieve emission reduction, lightweighting and structural rigidity that serve as key attributes for automotive material development. Further, aluminium is also emerging as a promising material, especially in the vehicle body.
The switch to BS 6 emission regime across the country called for significant engine downsizing on the part of OEMs, which effectively means that vehicle manufacturers are offering smaller engines in a compact space and delivering high power figures. And owing to this downsizing, vehicle engines touch higher temperatures for prolonged periods in pursuit of offering higher efficiency. This is where modular systems come into play as they not only carry a compact design, but also offer improved thermal management qualities than their traditional counterparts. New age automotive materials such as aluminium and plastics play a crucial role in the construction of such modular systems.
According to Rashmi Urdhwareshe, former Director, Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI), the need for lighter materials in vehicles is largely influenced by regulatory trends. “Regulations drive fuel economy that leads to the requirement for vehicles to be lightweight and makes it imperative for use of lightweight materials. Another regulatory trend is that all materials that are used in construction of a vehicle must be capable of being recycled in future. Essentially, what goes into a vehicle today has to be designed in such a manner that at the end of life of a vehicle the material is effectively recycled and reused in a regulatory manner,” she said.
Rajan Wadhera, President, Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM) & Senior Advisor, Mahindra & Mahindra reckons that high-strength steel will find more prominence in the auto industry. “Use of high-strength steel is driven by the government mandate to meet crash and safety norms. If you don’t use high-strength steel, the front of the engine will come inside the cabin as it can absorb all the energy at a 60 km/h crash, which normal steel cannot absorb. A lot of speciality steels such as high tensile steel and hot formed steels will be up for deployment in the auto industry going forward,” he opined.
Urdhwareshe shared her perspective on how vehicle safety is also driving the evolvement of automotive material development. “For crash compatibility, you need the vehicle front to absorb the impact. This leads to complete redesigning of vehicle frontal structures for crash compatibility. Of course, when one adds frontal structures it obviously leads to increasing the vehicle weight and therefore it needs to be compensated somewhere else. There is also a need for high-strength steel that is driven through the requirement for crash compatibility, as it protects or provides suitable strength to the vehicle,” she pointed out.
Wadhera said the evolution of the automotive industry, with focus on EVs, will dictate the way materials are used in the industry. “There is no doubt that there is going to be a huge change in the way materials are used, especially in the car industry. The push for EVs globally will necessitate the use of different materials depending on crash and safety requirements. EVs have to become lighter if the battery has to offer a higher range and for ensuring lighter vehicles you have to use high-strength steel for meeting 4-Star or 5-Star safety ratings,” he said.
Meanwhile, Urdhwareshe accentuated the importance of alloys in the automotive materials space. “Metal alloys are increasingly finding extensive use in vehicle construction on account of their physical properties like strength, thermal characteristics, whether-ability, etc. The trade-off with alloy is its low manufacturing cost. Different types of alloys are available, which will replace the conventional alloys,” she noted.
Wadhera believes that aluminium will find wider deployment in vehicles. “Aluminium will come up with in a big way in the vehicle body because aluminium is lighter than steel and can be deployed for body welding, frontal frames, doors frames, chassis, underbody, etc. And because aluminium is lighter than steel, it can offer better fuel economy as well,” he said.
Urdhwareshe also shed light on how smart materials are being adopted in the automotive industry. “The industry is increasingly witnessing use of smart materials in an innovative manner in design of suspensions, steering systems, etc. These smart materials enable the designer to optimise the use of material. After all, you cannot endlessly increase the material as there are overall weight constraints as well as space constraints, among others,” she noted.
Urdhwareshe believes that electric vehicles (EVs) would follow the globally prevailing focus on reducing vehicle weight. “Composites can be leveraged for EVs for the larger requirement of reducing vehicle weight. The material technology is getting upgraded in such a manner that you meet the same performance requirements using a smaller quantity of materials,” she explained.
Recyclability and recoverability of materials hold the key. “There is a need to ensure materials that go into a vehicle are environmentally-friendly. With end-of-life regulations getting stricter certain materials cannot be used, such as hazardous materials that go out of the auto value chain.”
It is clear that new-age automotive materials would play the role of an enabler towards reducing weight, improving structural longevity as well as fuel economy, improving vehicle comfort & safety, creating more space as well as driving cost-savings. Further, there will be an industry requirement for automotive materials to possess the capabilities to be recycled for future use. Needless to say, these new-age materials would have to be environmentally-friendly, while scoring high on fuel economy, emission-reduction and safety parameters. These new-age materials will have a key role to play, in upping the cleaner, efficiency and intelligent quotient of automotive components.
TEXT: Suhrid Barua