At some point there will be what is referred to as the “inflection point.” And when that occurs, there will be a change, a shift. From that point on, there will be a fundamental change in the auto industry, one predicated on an array of technologies including computer-aided-everything—from design and engineering to simulation and manufacturing—and an array of electronics—from controllers and motors to sensors and processors. What’s more, contributing to this shift will be new approaches to owning—or not owning. To driving—or not driving. There will be vehicular sharing, whether this means you are riding in the back of someone’s sedan and that someone just happens to be a driver for Uber or Lyft, or you’ve bought in to a vehicle along with other people so that you can use it when you need it and otherwise it is in use by others.
Designing and developing a vehicle isn’t as onerous as it once was, thanks not only to more than 100 years of engineering experience and knowledge, but because a whole lot can be done by people who are running a variety of simulations on increasingly powerful computers. They can do everything from kinematics to crash, from materials characterization to manufacturing throughput analysis. This is not to say that everything can be done digitally or virtually. But it is to say that whereas much of that work was once done with models and prototypes and by trial-and-error-and-fix-and-try-again, that’s no longer the case, or at least not to the extent that it once was.
Let’s move on to the manufacturing processes involved.
While there is no question that the internal combustion engine is going to continue to have a run in powering vehicles, there is also no question that the electrification of that powertrain is going to become more widespread and more fundamental to the operation of the engine and transmission. Arguably, the engine will become more of a commodity inasmuch as the electrified portion will have a major effect on the characteristics of that engine, whether this is in terms of making it run more fuel efficiently or in providing performance characteristics. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne has rightly identified the overcapacity that exists in the global auto industry overall, and certainly powertrain manufacturing is one area that there could be some significant consolidation, so that could reduce manufacturing challenges.
And if it is a fully electric vehicle, then there is significant simplification to the overall architecture. What’s more, this is an area where there could likely be sourcing of major modules from suppliers that could be, in effect if not in actuality, “snapped” into place to create the drive train. Here, there are big differences in terms of control algorithms to provide the character of the car, but this is something that goes back to the computing capabilities that are now ubiquitous.
While additive manufacturing still has a ways to go when it comes to fabricating parts to automotive size and scale, certainly the processes are available that can make tooling more quickly and inexpensively. That coupled with processes that are being developed for body panel fabrication with composites means that the exceedingly expensive stamping plants may give way.
As the industry makes its inevitable march toward increasing levels of autonomy, there is an array of sensors and controllers being developed. Right now vehicles are available with systems that can fully brake a car to zero without driver intervention. Several cars have the ability for lane keeping, which means self-steering, but at this point it is more a matter of putting torque in the steering wheel that’s still grasped by a human driver, largely because of legal, not technical, considerations. Adaptive cruise control is getting so common as to be almost as expected as heated seats; that, of course, is throttle control. So there’s braking, steering and accel/decel all under control. Self-driving vehicles don’t seem so far-fetched.
And when we get to self-driving vehicles, doesn’t it stand to reason that the one-to-driver approach that pretty much exists and which means that vehicles spend a whole lot of time going nowhere will give way to a case that when I’m at the office behind a desk for eight hours someone else can summon my car and use it? (What if I need to go somewhere unexpectedly and my car is elsewhere? I hit the Uber icon on my phone.)