Tires, steel and the power grid: How electric vehicles will change business for Goodyear, Cleveland-Cliffs and FirstEnergy

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Electric vehicles are coming, and automakers aren’t the only ones adapting.

Cleveland-Cliffs will sell new types of steel, and more of it. Goodyear has already come out with specific EV tires. And FirstEnergy, with its subsidiaries including Ohio Edison and the Illuminating Co., needs to make sure the electrical grid is ready to charge all of them.

But electric vehicles aren’t right around the corner. According to the US Department of Energy, less than 1% of the transportation sector relies on electricity, as of 2020. Vehicles with an internal combustion engine, often called ICE vehicles, will still dominate the roads for the near future.

A future with electric vehicles, whenever that future comes, will change things for several Northeast Ohio companies. And they’re already looking ahead.

How EVs are pushing the evolution of Goodyear tires

Electric vehicles, like their gas-powered counterparts, will of course drive on tires. But those tires will need to be better in a lot of ways, explained David Reese, Goodyear’s vice president of product development.

“The pace has definitely picked up in the last few years, but these are things we have been working on for at least a decade,” Reese said.

Some changes are intuitive. The average electric vehicle is heavier than a traditional vehicle, so the tires need to withstand heavier loads.

Electric motors, known for fast acceleration, also produce a lot of torque, so they need more durable treads.

Other changes are more nuanced, like reducing a tire’s rolling resistance, which is the friction between the tires and the road that a vehicle has to overcome to move. With less rolling resistance, a vehicle can get better fuel economy, whether that vehicle uses gas or electricity.

Range has been a large focus for electric vehicle manufacturers, Reese said.

A less obvious change: How do the tires sound? An internal combustion engine is loud and masks the noises a tire makes. But an electric vehicle is much quieter, so drivers are more likely to notice the tire sounds.

Reese said Goodyear has developed SoundComfort Technology, tires with built-in foam to reduce the noise they make.

Another change, more centered towards autonomous vehicles, involves non-pneumatic tires. These tires don’t have air in them and are less prone to flats. That becomes a bigger focus in some applications, like self-driving robots making deliveries, Reese said.

Many of these changes were already a focus for Goodyear. But Reese said electric vehicles are accelerating the evolution of tires.

Many electric vehicle makers are choosing to put Goodyear tires on their vehicles, he said. The company launched the ElectricDrive GT, its first replacement tires for electric vehicles, in December.

“The OEMS (original equipment manufacturers) are the ones that are helping to push the industry,” Reese said. “We’re just excited to be such an important part of this new architecture of vehicles.”

How will FirstEnergy coordinate charging, get electric vehicles on the grid

Imagine if every home on the block ran a dryer at the same time. If enough drivers choose electric vehicles over gas-powered ones, that draw on the power grid could be a reality.

That’s the future FirstEnergy is preparing for and why it is proposing pilot programs aimed at EV charging, said Camilo Serna, the company’s vice president of rates and regulatory affairs

It’s a long way off, though. A US Department of Energy study said about 25% of vehicles in Ohio would need to be electric to impact the distribution system. As of 2020, EVs accounted for 1% of vehicles in the state.

Serna said the country might get to that level in the 2030s, but it’s hard to predict how government incentives and new vehicles will change that pace.

“We do need to plan for our future where we have a lot of customers with EVs” Serna said.

Part of that planning is a future pilot program where drivers will use smart chargers that FirstEnergy can connect to. It would give FirstEnergy data, and also let the company delay and schedule charging.

For example, many people will plug in chargers when they get home from work, at about 7 pm FirstEnergy could delay some of the chargers, scheduling some to start at 9 pm, others at 11 pm

Staggering the chargers would reduce peak demand and get more energy through the grid with fewer upgrades, Serna explained.

“What we want to do is to add all this load with as minimal investment as needed,” Serna said.

That could be great for customers, since electric vehicles have the potential to bring down electricity rates, Serna said.

Rate prices are calculated by volume over cost, or how much power was used divided by how much it costs to run the grid. If electric vehicles use a lot more electricity, and FirstEnergy doesn’t have to spend a lot of money on grid upgrades, Serna said it could help lower rates.

Serna said utilities may upgrade the system in the future, installing new transformers or power lines, but the grid is mostly ready for electric vehicles. Utilities made major upgrades in the 1960s and 1970s, when air conditioners became prevalent.

FirstEnergy is also proposing pilot programs geared towards battery storage so superchargers can tap the grid during off hours. It is also looking at fleets, like a parking lot full of delivery vehicles, and how it can handle those loads.

Electric vehicles will need more steel and specialized materials from Cleveland-Cliffs

Cleveland-Cliffs and automakers are tied at the hip, said Celso Goncalves, the company’s chief financial officer. And they see the shift to electric vehicles as a positive.

“Not only do you need steel for the vehicles of the future, you need steel to build the infrastructure for those vehicles going forward,” Goncalves said.

Cliffs is the largest steel supplier to each automaker in North America, and the switch to EVs will mean more demand for steel. Goncalves said the average electric vehicle is 1.1 tons, versus the 1 ton average for internal combustion vehicles.

For more than a decade, Goncalves said, automakers have tried to make vehicles lighter. Because of heavier batteries in electric vehicles, that trend will reverse a bit to handle the bigger loads.

But the types of steel will also change, Goncalves explained. One example is non-oriented electrical steel, a specialized material needed for electric motors. He says Cliffs is the only steelmaker in North America supplying that steel for vehicles currently.

Steel is more sophisticated than people think, Goncalves said. Cleveland-Cliff’s research center works with automakers down to the design of their vehicles, and the steel each vehicle uses can be different.

“People tend to think that steel is a commodity,” Goncalves said. But that’s not correct. “These are highly specified specs that each automaker and each car require.”

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