The Birth of the Crumple Zone and Why Steel Matters

Beautiful machines built with beautiful steel to keep their passengers safe. 

Beautiful machines built with beautiful steel to keep their passengers safe. 

If you know a thing or two about automobiles, you know that the modern car is created with what's called a "crumple zone". That's the part of your car that absorbs the impact in a crash, protecting the occupants inside the shell. 

What you may not know is that the concept of the crumple zone was patented back in 1951 by Béla Barényi, an engineer at Mercedes-Benz. Prior to the research this engineer had completed, cars of the day were built with increasingly stiffer exteriors, believing that this was the best way to protect passengers. However, a stiff frame acts like a wall, and the energy from a collision would be passed directly to the passengers. With Barényi's design, a mix of materials were used, placing less-stiff materials, like aluminum, in the areas furthest from the passengers. At the time, this was revolutionary, and many of his designs are still used today.

Auto manufacturers like Volvo use a mix of different grades of steel to build their vehicles, known for their safety. In fact, Volvo's safety goals are lofty, aiming for zero deaths in a Volvo by 2020. You can see in the illustration below the various types of steel, coded by color. 

Volvo's steel map for the new XC40. (photo courtesy of Volvo)

Volvo's steel map for the new XC40. (photo courtesy of Volvo)

The automotive industry gets a bad rap, sometimes, for the use of fossil fuels and emissions. What people don't often know is that the steel that makes up the skeleton of their cars is one of the most recycled materials on Earth. The cycle of birth to death for an auto ensures that the materials are used again, and the engines are often comprised of a great deal of recycled steel. Check out these statistics: 

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According to an article from the Wall Street Journal in October, steel is back in style: "Varieties of lighter, stronger steel are being used in Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V.’s Pacifica van, Honda Motor Co.’s Ridgeline pickup truck and General Motors Co.’s Chevrolet Malibu sedan. Audi AG, which switched to an all-aluminum body for its A8 sedan more than 20 years ago, is using steel again on the latest model."

In recent years, especially in certain states, emissions regulations have become more stringent, and trends have shown that manufacturers are trying to make cars lighter and more efficient, thus fewer emissions. Aluminum is more expensive than steel, but it's lighter. On the other hand, there is no denying that in the case of a crash, steel, especially high-strength steel, will better withstand the impact.

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Next time you admire a vehicle and consider what you want to buy for yourself or your family, take a look at the steel content. Think about the recycling potential. And remember Mr. Barényi from Mercedes-Benz, who gifted us with a safer future. 

For more information on the Steel Market Development Institute, check out their blog at



Kristin Shaw