On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff
STUDENTS ENTERING traditional automotive engineering programs today may be the last generation of this noble profession. If predictions about future automobiles are correct, the only discipline surviving will be body engineering, the integration of exterior panels and interiors onto preexisting platforms. True, there’ll still be automotive styling and marketing, but not engineering.
The reasons for this are a nexus of trends suggested in Automotive News, specifically in three pieces titled “Industry on Trial,” August 3, 10 and 17, 2015, and three more in the series, August 24 and 31 and September 7. Some of the reasons forcing these trends are business related; others reflect society’s expectations of how personal mobility is employed.
Despite 2015 evolving into a banner year for auto sales in the U.S., the current auto business isn’t sustainable. Automakers spend time and effort (spelled $$$) meeting the world’s disparate government regulations for safety, clean air and fuel economy. They respond to perceived desires of a fickle car-buying public (gas prices down, truck sales up, but then …). And, obviously, automakers compete with each other.
Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne sum up a faulty business model: “The capital consumption rate by OEMs [Original Equipment Manufacturers] is unacceptable—it is duplicative, does not deliver real value to consumers and is pure economic waste.”
Merger is one option, but not a simple one. The Nissan Renault Alliance appears to be working, and expanding. However, given the failure of Daimler Chrysler, Volkswagen-Suzuki and others, it’s the exception.
John Krafcik, president of TrueCar Inc. (and the guy who invented the term “lean production”) observed, “I’m not sure if Darwinism is going to work because so many of these companies are big national champion players within their countries.”
Open-sourcing, the sharing of engineering expertise, is one means of lessening a duplication of efforts. Another is automaker trust of component supplier calibrations.
At 83, Bob Lutz is retired but more active than many auto executives still in the business. In Automotive News, he said, “A transmission is 80 percent common in terms of electronics, all the hardware, everything else. But then you sell it to various OEMs and they calibrate it completely differently.”
There’s an argument that the future automaker could outsource everything but a car’s passenger interface and exterior sheet metal; and, of course, it might not be metal by then. Product differentiation would be the job of automotive stylists and marketers, no longer the engineers.
Societal trends point this way as well. The idea of vehicle ownership—and loyalty to an automaker—is weakened as leases and rentals take over. Uber and similar car-on-demand schemes are part of this.
Many say that the autonomous car will be operating in some numbers by 2020. Apple and Google are heavily into the concept, with a business model of these companies supplying electronic connectivity and electric propulsion. Automakers will add only those elements actually seen by the user, principally the bodywork and interior.
Bob Lutz offers a prediction, albeit without a date: “The end state is going to be the fully autonomous, fully electric module with no capability for the driver to steer it or exercise any sort of command, You will call it up, it will arrive at the domicile, you’ll get in, input the destination and go to the freeway.”
He said, “The module itself is going to be relatively trivial,” with standardization of size, passenger features and performance. I see rather fewer auto engineers involved—and, alas, considerably less auto enthusiasm. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015