But that is changing. A host of new technologies that are reaching production or coming in the next few years mark the start of a new era in the ways vehicles are powered
And suppliers, no longer passive providers, are playing central roles in creating them.
From the common-rail diesel systems developed by Robert Bosch GmbH to tire-pressure monitoring systems from Goodyear and Siemens VDO, suppliers are now at the forefront when it comes to technological change.
Don Runkle has seen both worlds firsthand. He has spent most of his 33-year career at General Motors. Now he’s executive vice president at Delphi Automotive Systems Corp., a GM spinoff and the world’s largest auto supplier.
He says suppliers’ ability to deliver high-tech items gives automakers a greater menu from which to choose.
“The research and development in the industry is simply getting more focused,” he said. “If you think of what a car company does, they do things that are broader — they stamp metal, paint cars and build engines. We can target areas that we do, such as chassis development, and they source.”
GM’s fuel cell project is a good example. Though GM is developing its own fuel cell drive system, the company is lining up a global alliance of companies, including Delphi, to supply such things as the fuel tanks, fuel cells and parts for the gasoline reformer.
In some cases, such as with Ford Motor Co. and Aisin AW, suppliers and the manufacturer work closely on a project. Aisin AW, a Japanese transmission manufacturer, is supplying the electric transaxle for the gasoline-electric Ford Escape HEV scheduled for 2003. But Ford engineers are writing the software that will make the system work.
The coming wave of technology that will change the automobile is being driven by both automakers and suppliers, says John Barkley, director of cross systems development for Visteon, the world’s second-largest parts supplier.
Visteon, he said, often develops ideas for future products by asking drivers what they want in areas such as safety, performance and comfort. Then Visteon’s engineers brainstorm for ideas to meet those needs. Often, Barkley said, automakers’ internally generated data will validate Visteon’s.
“For instance, in the safety area, we talked to a lot of consumers worldwide and asked what would most enhance safety,” Barkley said. “They said increasing awareness of what is happening around vehicle. They want technology that makes them more aware of what bad drivers are doing.”
One key driver of this change is the mandate to make vehicles cleaner and more efficient. Another factor, says GM’s Alan Taub, is a smarter, more demanding global customer.
“Our customers are being exposed to the benefits of high-technology appliances and features in their workplaces and homes and therefore expect the same in their vehicles,” says Taub, executive director of science for GM’s research and development group.
Suppliers who invest early in technology will be the ones who bring down costs and position themselves to prosper when the market for their products matures, says Thad Malesh, an auto industry analyst who tracks technology for J.D. Power and Associates in Agoura Hills, Calif. He sees global environmental concerns as a key driver in the technology race.
Here are some of the technologies that will reduce emissions, raise fuel economy, boost performance and improve safety. See the box on Page 3i for the roles played by key suppliers.
Breaking the linksFor more than a century, mechanical linkages have operated the steering, brakes and throttle. But the old system of cables, levers, rods and hydraulic equipment is being replaced by smaller, faster-acting and more efficient electrical components in three areas:
The Acura NSX, Honda S2000, and the upcoming Honda Civic Si and Saturn Vue use electronic power steering systems that eliminate the hydraulic pump and hoses. A small, powerful motor mounted in the steering column or on the rack-and-pinion provides the power that turns the wheels. But that’s just an interim step until engineers can perfect a steer-by-wire system that places electric motors somewhere in the suspension system to turn the wheels.
An early version of an electronic steer-by-wire system, from Delphi Automotive Systems, are available on the 2002 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra. In the Quadrasteer system, the truck’s pivoting rear wheels are linked electronically to the steering wheel. A sensor in the steering column sends a signal that actuates a motor to turn the rear wheels, giving the big truck a turning radius of 37.1 feet — about the same as a mid-sized sedan. The front wheels retain the conventional mechanical system.
In the meantime electrohydraulic brakes, scheduled to appear next spring for the first time on the 2003 Mercedes-Benz SL roadster, use an electronically powered master cylinder that determines the correct braking pressure for each wheel. Fully electronic brakes could be on the road by 2005.
Under the hoodAutomakers seeking to wring maximum efficiency from internal combustion engines are concentrating on diesels, better fuel-delivery systems, hybrids and other technologies. Transmissions also are changing.
Common-rail injection — in which diesel fuel is injected into the cylinders under very high pressure — combined with advanced turbocharging and more efficient combustion chamber design has enabled lean-burning diesels to run smoother, quieter and cleaner. Fuel economy on some cars, such as the subcompact Volkswagen Lupo and Audi A2 sold in Europe, deliver highway fuel economy of around 90 mpg.
Another promising technology is direct injection, in which diesel fuel is blasted straight into the cylinders under high pressure and in a target area for more complete combustion.
Diesel car sales in Europe have grown from 14 percent of the new-car market in 1990 to 33 percent in 2000. But such growth is impossible, given existing technology, in the U.S. market unless emissions standards scheduled to be phased in starting in 2004 are amended. The regulations call for strict limits on oxides of nitrogen and particulate matter (soot) that even the best current European diesel technology do not meet. A number of suppliers and automakers are working on after-treatment systems, such as electrically fired catalysts in the exhaust system that burn harmful emissions. Cleaner diesel fuel with lower sulfur is coming for 2006, but that alone won’t enable even the cleanest of today’s diesels to meet the new emission standards.
When the vehicle is at a stoplight, the engine shuts off. The unit restarts the engine in a split second when the driver presses the accelerator. Applying the brakes turns the unit into a generator to feed electricity into the battery. Starter-generators will be used on virtually all gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles. GM plans to install starter-generators in full-sized pickups in 2004, and estimates fuel savings of up to 15 percent.
the mid-1950s — can’t keep up. Starting in the 2004 model year, 42-volt batteries and alternators will provide the power.
In addition to the bigger battery, the new system will require a high-output alternator and more robust wiring and connectors.
Mercedes-Benz brought out a version of cylinder deactivation on the 2001 V-12 S-class sedan and CL coupe. In Mercedes’ Active Cylinder Control system, computers operating two-piece rocker arms can shut down one bank of six cylinders by disconnecting the valves from the camshaft whenever maximum power is not needed. The result is a 20 percent improvement in fuel economy.
GM will try again with cylinder deactivation in 2004. This time the technology will come from Eaton Corp. GM plans to use it on its V-8 truck engines and expects fuel economy improvements of 6 percent to 12 percent.
Ford is working on a Variable Displacement Engine that also shuts down unneeded cylinders.
5 percent and 10 percent. The limitation is the transmissions are unreliable when engine torque is greater than 200 pounds-feet, which makes it ideal for small- and medium-sized cars, but not light trucks.
Here’s how it works: A steel belt or chain connects two pulleys that slide on shafts. Oil pressure, regulated by a computer, expands or compresses each pulley. The changing circumference of the pulleys causes the belt or chain to ride higher or lower based on engine speed. The result is a seamless change of ratios. Continuously variable transmissions cost about $200 more than current automatic transmissions. Nissan and Ford, which has a joint venture with ZF Group to build continuously variable transmissions in Batavia, Ohio, are considering the transmission for future products.
Volkswagen uses a clutchless manual gearbox on its efficient Lupo subcompact. It’s also available on the Ferrari 360 Modena and a few other European and Japanese-market vehicles.
A fuel cell converts hydrogen into electricity by a chemical reaction.
The only byproducts are heat and water vapor. The electricity is used to power an electric motor to drive the car. Fuel cells have been used in the aerospace industry since the 1960s.
The challenge is finding a way to feed hydrogen to the fuel cell stack. GM believes the fastest way to bring fuel cell vehicles to market is to extract hydrogen from gasoline, which would allow motorists to use the nation’s existing fueling infrastructure.
GM is spending billions of dollars to develop an onboard gasoline reformer and hopes to be the first automaker to sell 1 million fuel cell vehicles.
Other automakers, such as Ford, DaimlerChrysler and Honda, are pursuing vehicles that are fueled either directly by hydrogen or that use methanol — two fuels that would require a new fueling infrastructure for mass acceptance. Demonstration fleets of fuel cell vehicles are expected to be on the road in as few as five years.
Driver error may become less of a factor in accidents because of electronic suspension systems that can help the driver retain control of the car on slick roads and during in emergency maneuvers.
The system uses little electricity. It is governed by a computer that can change the firmness of the shock absorbers up to 1,000 times per second.
GM leads the industry with a widely available system that is tied into the antilock brakes. When a tire loses air pressure it spins slightly faster, which is picked up by sensor that turns on a warning in the dash. The next generation of tire pressure monitors will be able to alert drivers of a slow leak. For instance, a new system being developed by Siemens VDO Automotive and Goodyear will use a computer chip cured into the tire to give the driver a readout of the temperature and pressure of each tire, said a Goodyear spokesman.