Keeping Up with the Technology

New Vehicle Designs And Materials – Can Your Collision Repair Facility Fix Them Properly?Today’s vehicle designers face some competitive demands. They need to reduce fuel consumption and polluting emissions, but still recognize that consumers love sport utility and other large vehicles. Consumers aren’t clamoring for a return to the days of the compact car.

One solution is obvious, but challenging – find a way to reduce the weight of vehicles, thus reducing fuel consumption, without sacrificing size.

The aluminum industry believes it offers vehicle makers a good alternative to the weight of steel. An aluminum-based vehicle may be 22 percent larger than a steel car of the same weight. In recent years, the use of aluminum has surpassed the use of plastics in some vehicles. Once limited primarily to engine, transmission, and suspension parts, aluminum is increasingly being used for cosmetic outer panels, door skins and trunk lids, inner structural parts, and even structural frame rails.

A limited but growing number of vehicles are constructed almost completely of aluminum. Aluminum industry officials recently used one such vehicle, an Audi A8, to show off aluminum’s strength by supporting the 4,000-pound luxury sedan with only a six-pack of aluminum beverage cans under each wheel.

The steel industry is fighting back, however, with an ambitious multi-year project to develop an “ultralight steel auto body (ULSAB).” This consortium of steelmakers says it has shown that steel can be used to create a typical five-passenger sedan with 25 to 33 percent less weight than a conventional steel-bodied vehicle, without raising production costs or sacrificing safety.

How is it done? First, the ULSAB uses more of what is called high-strength steel. While between 20 percent and 60 percent of the body of most current vehicles is made from high-strength steels, these materials account for 100 percent of the ULSAB.

Traditional vehicle parts are stamped out of a sheet of one type and thickness of steel. The ULSAB engineers recognized that some of these parts could instead be stamped out of a “quilt-like” piece of steel created by welding different thicknesses or strengths of steel into a single flat piece. A part stamped from this “tailor-welded blank” can have high-strength steel in the areas where it is needed, and thinner or lower strength steel in other areas. This removes weight that does not contribute to performance.

For example, the ULSAB body side, including the rear fender and roof structure, is all one part made from a tailor-welded blank that includes three grades of steel and five different thicknesses. By consolidating what have traditionally been multiple parts into one unit, designers also eliminate the weight of the flanges needed to weld the parts together.

Some of the non-structural portions of the ULSAB vehicle body, such as the spare tire tub and dash panel insert, are made from a steel sandwich material. Two very thin skins of steel combined with a plastic core create this one-millimeter thick material weighing 50 percent less than a comparable all-steel piece.

As aluminum and elements of the ULSAB project are increasingly being used on vehicles on the road today, proper training is becoming even more important to achieve a proper repair after a collision. Vehicle owners should select a collision repair facility that has the current technical training to understand how to work with the lighter weight materials and changing vehicle construction designs.