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Globe Drive The engineer’s dilemma: Making a car that can keep up with technology

Jay Chen, powertrain engineer with Mazda USA.

Doug Firby

The implementation of rapidly evolving electronics has revolutionized cars and the way we drive them in recent years. And that has some designers worried.

Amid the cornucopia of advanced technology and electric vehicles on display at the New York International Auto Show, auto makers expressed fears that breakthrough technology is a sword that cuts both ways.

“Electronics are coming faster than car makers can deploy them,” says Jay Chen, powertrain engineer with Mazda USA. “By the time we deploy a new technology in a car, it’s a dinosaur.”

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You can trade in your cellphone for a new one every couple of years, says Steve Carter, director of product planning for Honda America, but many consumers still want to keep their cars for 10 or even 15 years. That means the vehicles being made today will greatly outlast the technology being implemented in them.

It’s a bit like trying to keep Windows XP running on your old PC – except, unlike that old computer, your car will keep running even after the software is wildly out of date.

This phenomenon has created a new dilemma for automotive engineers and designers: The tsunami of new technology that is changing the driving experience – giving us such safety features as lane-keep assist, responsive speed control, automatic braking and side-impact warnings – is state of the art today, but will quickly be overtaken by future advancements.

This raises the potential that “cars you purchase this year will be completely useless in three years,” Chen says.

“Car companies are trying to keep up, and the government agencies are trying to keep up … but even government doesn’t know the best solution.”

Auto makers have adapted to this change by providing ongoing software updates to their cars, equipping many with on-board modems so that they can be updated online with no effort from the owner. But, like your PC, at some point the car won’t be equipped to accept the updates.

“People are looking for cars to behave more like consumer electronics,” says Scott Tobin, director of product development for the Lincoln Motor Co. Yet, even with development cycles compressed to as little as three years, auto makers take much longer than a smartphone maker to get their infinitely more complex products to market.

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Kiyoshi Shimizu, chief world engineer at Honda and architect of the Clarity line of electric (EVs), fuel cell and hybrid vehicles.

Doug Firby/Handout

Like all the majors, Honda is looking to bring more flexibility to product development by making components compact enough to fit into a variety of models. Kiyoshi Shimizu, Honda’s chief world engineer and architect of the Clarity line of electric (EVs), fuel-cell and hybrid vehicles, says hydrogen fuel-cell drivetrains have been reduced in size to roughly that of a conventional V-6 gasoline engine. That means they can be installed in the company’s compact CRV or even the subcompact Fit without major reengineering.

“Battery and fuel-cell development is very rapid,” says Shimizu, a 33-year Honda employee who helped develop Honda’s original Insight hybrid electric car, which debuted in 1999. “In the next three years, it will advance even more.”

Auto makers are pushing leasing options as one way to protect consumers against rapid depreciation of cars that are vulnerable to technology creep. And what happens to those cars when the lease expires? Honda’s Carter says they are released to either a new consumer or even the original owner at lower rates that reflect the depreciation.

Computer-aided design (CAD) and other tools, such as the ability to digitally cut a car in half to see how the parts integrate, has sped up design but the fundamentals have not changed, Lincoln’s Tobin says.

“We still build the initial concepts in clay,” he says.

Bert Brooks, Nissan’s senior manager of product planning, agreed the time required from the conception of a vehicle until it rolls off the assembly line has not changed radically. “The most radical change is in the electronics,” and that is a target that moves as rapidly as the Road Runner. “We have to anticipate what the customer wants.”

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The challenge, Brooks says, is that consumers may not realize they want a new technology such as responsive speed control, adaptive suspensions or adaptive steering. Once they try it, “they realize, ‘This is kind of nice.’”

The BMW 7 Series uses GPS to downshift the transmission ahead of upcoming bends in the road.


One example is BMW’s innovative use of GPS in its 7 and 5 Series cars, says Oleg Satanovsky, product communications manager with BMW USA. The car “sees” an upcoming bend in the road and will downshift the transmission in advance to optimize performance.

Smaller auto makers such as Mazda are more cautious about shifting away from internal-combustion engines. Chen says the company is focused on whatever technology will help it achieve the U.S. government’s CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) targets, yet still give consumers the greatest flexibility. Mazda sees short range and lengthy refuelling times as limitations in electric vehicles that won’t be resolved for some time.

Instead, in the short term, the company is focusing on its Skyactiv-X compression ignition engine, which yields a claimed 24-per-cent improvement in economy over its previous generation gasoline engine.

But as fickle consumers react to new trends, auto makers are forced to gamble, BMW’s Satanovsky says.

“You’re basically trying to predict what people will want years from now,” he says. “And we’re hoping we’re right.”

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The New York International Auto Show is the world’s second-oldest fair for motor vehicles. It was founded in 1900 – just two years after Paris. This year’s event runs until April 8.

Shopping for a new car? Check out the new Globe Drive Build and Price Tool to see the latest discounts, rebates and rates on new cars, trucks and SUVs. Click here to get your price.

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