Why Are Today's Cars Safer? In part, It's as Simple as ABC: Air bags, Belts, and Chassis.

*This post is sponsored by SMDI. All opinions expressed in this piece are my own.

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My dad introduced me to 50s cars when I was a kid, and I have been a fan of classic cars ever since. Bel Airs from 1955 make my heart sing, 1956 Crown Victorias give me palpitations, and 1959 ‘Vettes cause me to stare in awe. I have, admittedly, extolled the virtues of “big boat” cars for safety.

However, if you take a look at how far the automotive industry has progressed in the last 50 years when it comes to features that save lives.

Seat belts and air bags have been crucial additions to modern cars, of course. When my dad lost his arm in a car crash when he was 16 in 1959, he was thrown from the vehicle onto the pavement. He says he’s lucky to be alive.

Automakers have also made incredible strides in research and testing as it relates to the chassis, too. When cars were first made, they were built on wooden frames, which is what the people of that age knew from carriage and wagon structures. In the early 1900s, the Dodge brothers created the first all-steel body automobile, pioneering a process we now take for granted.

Designing a rigid, energy-absorbing structure of steel protects the driver and passengers from harm in a crash. Now with over 200 grades of steel available for automotive use, steelmakers have discovered ways to innovate by making steel lighter and stronger than ever before, and they continue their research to keep improving. Consumers today demand more fuel efficiency, and automakers require high-performance materials that are lighter to achieve higher MPG targets.

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Metallurgy, the branch of science and technology concerned with the properties of metals and their production and purification, is also chemistry, and understanding how elements work together. Do you remember your high school chemistry class? Steel consists almost entirely of iron, but also contains carbon, manganese, phosphorous, sulfur, silicon, and sometimes nickel and chromium. So, if I recall correctly, that’s FE + C + Mn +… and so on.

Jody Hall, vice president of the automotive market for the Steel Market Development Institute (SMDI), has a Doctorate of Philosophy and Master of Science in materials science and engineering as well as a Bachelor of Science in metallurgical engineering. In short, she knows her metals. She told us in an interview at the North American International Auto Show that today’s steel absorbs energy during impact in a crash. If you’ve seen the movie Black Panther, Shuri creates a new suit for T’Challah after his defeat by Killmonger and explains the way it absorbs energy to keep him from harm and then sends it back out. If you think of steel as a Black Panther suit, that could give you a great deal of comfort as you hit the road in your vehicle today.

What’s really interesting about today’s steel is that it’s recyclable, making it greener than you might think. Did you know that more than 14 million vehicles were recycled in 2006? According to the American Iron and Steel Institute, the steel industry recycled enough steel in old cars that same year to make 13.5 million new ones. Scrapped cars also make utility poles and other steel elements in our communities.

Now, I’m not planning to give up my love of classic cars any time soon. They’re gorgeous and timeless. However, when it comes to safety, today’s cars are much safer and stronger. In 1970 – the year I was born! - only a few grades of steel were available to automakers. Now with more than 200 grades of steel, automakers have the right grade for the right application to maximize performance. 

Steel grades that exist in today’s cars weren’t available even 10 years ago, so it’s going to be fascinating to see what is developed in the years ahead.

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Kristin Shaw