Although the ie:3 concept car developed by Johnson Controls and introduced at the 2011 North American International Auto Show in Detroit this past January is a study in clever engineering—as in a compact battery-powered vehicle that provides sufficient room for passengers and storage as well as sufficient range (100 miles per charge)—there are a couple of things that are notable, a couple of things beyond the 216-cell, prismatic-format, low-profile lithium-ion battery pack.
One is that the car was developed so that the elements are viable for the real world by 2015: this is not merely an exercise in The Future (writ large and stated with a basso profundo).
The other is that it has an interior that while it might look ordinary at first glance, actually has some extraordinary differences.
Consider, for example, the speakers that are ordinarily used in vehicles. In the case of the ie:3 there are none visible—per se. That’s because the headliner and trim panels serve as the speaker system, thereby opening up additional storage space on the doors.
There is a multi-screen HMI (human-machine interface) that includes a transparent heads-up display for speed and other operating information; a 6.5-in. transreflective color display that handles information related to the state of power as well as driving instructions and related materials; an 8.8-in. center infor-
mation display with animated graphics that can be operated via touch or with a controller located on the floor console.
They used their PP Thin Film process for the door panels, trim panels, and instrument panel. This process consists of several thin layers of, primarily, polypropylene (PP) that are built up in a direct mold-behind process. The visible surface has a controllable gloss and is scratch resistant (said to be 10x more scratch-resistant than paint). The process accommodates a variety of materials in its layers, including, in the case of the ie:3, natural fibers, which actually form the surface texture for the parts, consequently not requiring a textured mold for the grain.
There is a light-weight mesh fabric covering the top of the instrument panel in lieu of the vinyl or leather that is ordinarily found there.
Which is all well and good.
But what’s worth cycling back to is that point about viability. As Beda Bolzenius, president for Johnson Controls Automo-tive Experience, put it at the reveal of the concept, “The features and functions in the ie:3 are adaptable for markets around the world and are viable for model-year 2015 and beyond.”
Or, as Michael M. Warsaw, JCI vice president, Design & Marketing; North America Automotive Experience, puts it, “Nothing in the car could be shown unless it was viable for 2015. Otherwise, it would be just another concept car, and who would care—really?”
In other words, in moving toward the creation of the ie:3, the people involved went at the development in a way not wholly unlike what they do when developing products for customers. And JCI’s product development approach is nothing if not renowned.
According to Warsaw, “The genesis of the ideas and the solutions we provide is based around market intelligence, market research, consumer research, and discovery of new technologies.” There is a tremendous amount of upfront work done by the company, with the leading-work performed by JCI’s Technology and Advanced Development Group. This group is broken out into domains, such as materials and HMIs. Then there are specific product groups, representing Seating, Interiors, and Electronics.
So the advanced people are coming up with product and process technologies, and the line-of-business people start working toward determining how that may be beneficial to their products. Then, Warsaw explains, the industrial design people get involved by creating a specific context around the ideas, visualizing the products, creating proto-types, and making the ideas tangible.
Warsaw says that the innovation process has three primary elements:
• User experience
• Technical feasibility
• Business viability
“Those three components are always in tension,” he says. He adds, “When one is over-dominant, then the product is going to suffer. You need to find the right balance.” And Warsaw admits, “We struggle with those like every company does.” But he also points out that there is an understanding throughout the organization that there needs to be balance, so perhaps the struggle is less onerous than would be the case in a situation where the engineers had power over the business people and the designers, or any variation of the three.
Tension is good. Dominance isn’t.
An example of this in action can be discerned in the use of the fabric covering on the instrument panel of the ie:3. While this is a concept and not a production car, remember that the drive toward viability was foremost: they did this car because they are hopeful that the elements within it will result in production contracts.
Warsaw says that the designers were inspired by the use of suspension fabrics in a number of applications, from office furniture (think the Herman Miller Aeron chair) to other show cars. “We made a compelling case for using the fabric, creating a value proposition as to why it would be important, a differentiator for the customer. It would also be an opportunity to save weight.” And while they were pursuing this line of argument, JCI purchased Michel Thierry, a European fabric supplier with an extensive portfolio of materials.
Whether what they think is a good idea will actually come to production fruition remains to be seen, but they have done the lab work important to make it viable, such as performing various tests, such as airbag deployment.
One element in the ie:3 that is in some ways more exotic than the aforemen-tioned lithium-ion battery pack is the fact that the front passenger seat doesn’t move on tracks. It is fixed in place.
Warsaw explains that they started with the question: “How does a user really use a car?” So they obtained data about the use of that seat, particularly for emerging markets like China, India, and Brazil. And they found that in those countries, the back seat, especially that behind the front passenger seat, tends to be used more. “In lots of emerging markets, cars have drivers—small cars, included,” he says.
So they began to think of what they could do by fixing the seat (although it should be noted that the front seat is not designed and engineered to be some sort of penalty box, that there is a cantilevered seat design that allows “extreme” lounge recline (45°) and 15° of cushion angle adjustment). This meant that they could eliminate the track in the floor. Which meant that they would create the front seat so that it would flip up. And when they flipped the seat up, they created an ottoman for the person sitting in the rear seat. While it is far from being the norm, the benefits, practicality, and clear customer differentiator (especially for those who are being driven, who are likely to be the ones selecting vehicles to be purchased) are unmistakable.
“Even in an environment of cost reductions, even though the industry has gone through the Great Recession, we find really cool introductions coming into the marketplace every year that are not about cost reductions,” Warsaw says. “It comes back to creativity and innovation—and whether you understand the three components.”
Business viability. Technological feasi-bility. User experience. Get the right tension, get extraordinary products.
The mid-size 2005 Pathfinder, Nissan's largest design and development program to date, involved three technical centers, and took 36 months and countless trans-Pacific trips to complete. Though it borrows major components from the full-size Titan pickup and Armada SUV, it's not just a downsized clone.
The thing about the Wrangler Willys Wheeler: It is a toy for a grown-up boy.
Dan Nicholson is vice president of General Motors Global Propulsion Systems, the organization that had been “GM Powertrain” for 24 years.