Wednesday | 01 April, 2009 | 5:41 am

On the road

By Lisa Rummler

April 2009 - When gasoline hit $4 a gallon in the summer of 2008, even die-hard devotees of muscle cars began to take a second look at hybrid vehicles and ponder the benefits of alternative fuels.

Although gas prices have dropped, for the week of March 16, 2009, the weekly U.S. regular conventional retail gasoline price was higher than it was five years ago (about $1.89 per gallon compared with about $1.68 per gallon), according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Washington, D.C.

Further, according to the EIA's March 10 short-term energy outlook, "Retail gasoline prices are projected to average $1.96 per gallon in 2009 and $2.18 per gallon in 2010."

But individual consumers are not the only ones who likely face more expensive automotive fuel--those who own commercial vehicles must grapple with the fact that prices at the pump are probably going to rise.

Steer toward success
This outlook, combined with the need to meet higher environmental standards, has led some companies to invest in electric vehicles, such as those produced by Modec UK, Coventry, England.

Current customers include UPS, FedEx and Tesco, a U.K.-based grocery store chain, and Modec expects demand to rise a great deal by 2010. According to a press release, a Modec vehicle with a fully charged battery can go about 93 miles, and the vehicle's maximum speed is about 50 mph.

Modec's commercial vehicles were nominated for the Swedish Steel Prize 2008, and one of their integral components is high-strength steel, specifically Domex 700 MC hot-rolled, extra-high-strength steel from SSAB, Stockholm, Sweden.

Another company, Smith Electric Vehicles, a division of The Tanfield Group PLC, Washington, England, also uses Domex 700 MC steel for its vehicles, according to Anders Sorman, project manager of marketing communications at SSAB Strip Products.

In the case of Modec, Domex 700 MC helps protect the battery pack that powers the company's electric vehicles. The pack is in the middle of each vehicle, in its chassis.

"On ordinary trucks, the way the rear doors move in relation to one another while the truck is traveling is clearly visible," said Colin Smith, technical manager at Modec, in a press release. "This is entirely inadmissible in a vehicle with a battery pack in the chassis since it would be likely to lead to short circuit in due course."

Driving force
High-strength steel was the only material that could meet this and other requirements for Modec's electric vehicles, according to Sorman.

"The early requirement for a lightweight chassis with torsional stiffness led us to a thin-walled, deep, closed-box section design," he says. "Early calculations and a weight, strength and cost exercise showed that Domex 700 was the most efficient solution."

This rigidity in the chassis protects the battery against twisting inputs, which cuts down on the chances for mechanical failure inside the cassette, according to Sorman.

Additionally, using Domex 700 MC helped optimize vehicle handling and increase predictability. The metal also improves crash performance, maximizing passengers' safety.

Sorman says the hot-rolled, extra-high-strength steel, which ranges from 2 millimeters to 6 millimeters, provides green benefits, as well.

"High-strength steel makes vehicles weigh less," says Sorman. "This reduces emissions, helps haulers to increase payload and gives, of course, good environmental effects."

Because of certain features unique to high-strength steel, Sorman says it was a natural choice for Modec in designing and building its electric vehicles. "Steel is understood by commercial vehicle operators and service centers," he says. "It can be repaired (straightened or welded) to keep vehicle time off the road to a minimum. Aluminum, for example, while being perceived as a lightweight material, is expensive to manufacture and repair but would be regarded as too high-tech and fragile by commercial vehicle customers and operators." MM

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