Commentary

Seldom have so many been so wrong for so long.

According to most long-term automotive material forecasts from the 1990s, the 1980s and back to the 1960s, cars and trucks now should be composed mostly of technologically advanced lightweight alternative materials: plastics, aluminum, magnesium and lightweight composites.

Steel should be playing a diminished role, comprising far less than the 55% of vehicle curb weight the material traditionally has held. And the North American steel industry, itself, by now should have shriveled into a puny shadow of its former self, a victim of low-technology products, high labor rates and its own inertia.

In the late 1980s, for instance, both General Motors and Ford were planning major high-volume programs featuring plastic-skinned cars and trucks. The end of steel’s dominance seemed inevitable.

But in a stunning reversal of fortune, steel has stolen the automotive materials show. GM’s APV minivans fizzled in the marketplace, and Ford’s plastic-bodied truck programs never got off the ground.

And 20 years later, steel now is proudly touted as a high-technology material on some of the world’s most expensive and advanced cars and trucks.

“High-strength, high-tech steel alloys represent half of the material used for the body-in-white of the new S-Class, an unprecedented percentage in automotive technology,” brags DaimlerChrysler.

Two studies released at a recent American Iron and Steel Institute seminar say the percentage of steel in vehicles actually has risen over the years to about 62% of vehicle weight.

And, after having some 40 North American producers in bankruptcy as little as five years ago, many steel makers now are financially outperforming most of the automotive supply community.

The difference is higher value products and vastly improved productivity.

Starting in the 1980s, the steel industry began forming consortiums and cooperative partnerships between steel makers and their auto maker customers aimed at improving quality and creating new types of steel alloys that were stronger and easier to fabricate into lighter-weight structures.

Steel makers also pooled $44 million to engineer various lightweight steel body prototypes to prove to auto makers that steel could indeed be used to make lightweight vehicles.

The result is myriad families of high-strength and advanced high-strength steel and innovative hydroformed body structures.

Dick Schultz, project consultant at Ducker Worldwide, predicts use of high-strength steels and advanced high-strength steels, combined, will rise 578 lbs. (262 kg) per vehicle in North America between 1975 and 2015, while use of aluminum, magnesium and plastic composites will grow only 290 lbs. (132 kg), 22 lbs. (10 kg) and 184 lbs. (83 kg), respectively, during the same period.

There is still bitterness in much of the auto supply community that some of steel’s recent success has come at their expense, because some steel products have been protected by import tariffs.

The price North America’s traditional steel industry has paid to become globally competitive is breathtaking. In its heyday in the 1960s, the U.S. steel industry directly employed about 600,000 workers. It currently employees about 150,000, and yet it produces as much or more steel.

After being written off for decades, steel now looks like it has a bright future in the auto industry.

dwinter@wardsauto.com