The world car is dead, but the world platform is very much alive.
It was endorsed by a panel of chief engineers at the Automotive News World Congress as a keystone of the industry's global strategy.
German buyers do not want the exact same vehicles as buyers in France, Japan and Los Angeles, the panelists said. Streamlined product development and better understanding of local market needs are letting automakers derive ostensibly unique vehicles from common architecture.
As long as buyers cannot see the standardized components, panelists agreed, the vehicles can be pitched to distinct markets and niches with appropriate tweaks.
The Jaguar S-Type, Lincoln LS and Ford Thunderbird are examples of vehicles with distinct personalities spawned from the same platform, noted panelist Neil Ressler, vice president of advanced vehicle technology at Ford Motor Co.
'We assume that the typical Jaguar owner doesn't want to drive what they view as a rebadged Ford, and we've worked very hard to prevent that,' Ressler said.
At Honda, the size of the Accord sedan has been tailored to both the narrow streets of Tokyo and the wide boulevards of America through expandable suspension subframes.
These subframes vary in width, but they share attachment points for easy assembly, said panelist Charles Allen, general manager of Honda Research and Development Americas Inc.
'The flexible Accord is a 'virtual' world car,' Allen said.
Common subsystems and math-based computer design are essential to General Motors' strategy, said Jay Wetzel, general manager of GM's Technical Center.
The company has created a new center in which 3-D, virtual-reality modeling will be used to evaluate which vehicles can be derived from future platforms.
'We can offer a wide range of vehicles efficiently and at low cost that the consumer would never guess are off the same platform,' he said.
Shrinking product lead times to 24 months or less is a tricky task that has forced automakers to rethink product development.
DaimlerChrysler Corp. discovered that the initial design priorities, or 'critical paths,' laid out in the early days of product development were costing time and money.
'We found out we were thinking a little bit wrong,' said Chris Theodore, senior vice president of platform engineering. ''Critical path' is no longer in our lexicon.'
Another challenge is that standardized computer-aided design for the auto industry is still just a dream for suppliers.
Tier 1 suppliers are taking on more design and development work, said panelist Lou Kincaid, general manager of worldwide product engineering for Johnson Controls Inc. Those suppliers would benefit by having a common computer language.