The world's biggest parts maker is contemplating a new safety niche in the global supply trade.
But 'niche' hardly does the concept justice. The idea Delphi Automotive Systems Corp. is toying with is a bid to supply virtually every component that would serve some safety purpose in a vehicle.
As it will be presented during this week's SAE 2000 World Congress in Detroit, the concept proposes a one-stop-shopping service in which Delphi would engineer a vehicle's collision-avoidance system, sensors, airbags, seat belts, warning systems, mirrors, brakes, steering technology and accident-alert communications equipment, as well as a pantry of not-yet-marketable features such as automatic fire extinguishing.
Delphi officials point out that the concept is just that at the moment: an idea to demonstrate to customers what Delphi could do. But they say that is exactly their point: Delphi could do it. The mammoth supplier is ready to approach safety as a single overriding module in a vehicle.
'What we're really doing is changing the way we look at safety,' says Steve Rohr, Delphi's director of systems engineering in occupant protection systems. 'We're not just hawking a bunch of parts. Nor are we claiming that we will build the entire car - just add tires.
'But what we are saying is that we have the know-how and technology in safety to be a good partner for our customers as they look for solutions.'
A systems approach to vehicle safety is nothing new.
In recent years, auto component makers have been taking larger and larger views of the functions they supply, and adding more pieces to their individual modules. Integrated systems from companies like Delphi, Robert Bosch GmbH and TRW Inc. have reached from the front bumper through the steering columns into airbag modules and back down into the steering mechanisms.
But Delphi is now suggesting that a vehicle's entire safety program could be executed by a single supplier.
'We are positioning ourselves to be that supplier,' Rohr says. 'The trend you've seen with the complete interior supplier, you'll now see in safety.'
That will mean some serious turf fighting. Automakers are pressing for better safety responsiveness from virtually every part of a vehicle.
Lighting is a case in point. Traditionally, the only things that aided driver vision other than windshields were wipers and headlights. Technology now promises to add another layer to the equation with night vision. This year's Cadillac DeVille boasts a night vision feature that uses infrared camera images that are bounced onto the windshield to improve night driving.
Cruise control is another case in point: Until now, cruise control has required a driver to actively disengage it by applying the brakes or accelerating. But following a European market initiative, vehicles with 'adaptive' cruise control are beginning to show up in North America.
The variation - one version of which comes from Delphi and is an option on the Jaguar XKR in Europe - uses radar-sensing technologyembedded in the car's front-end to monitor the proximity of other cars.
When the sensors detect that another vehicle is too close, the cruise control disengages, slowing the vehicle.
Although automakers are marketing adaptive cruise control as a convenience rather than a safety component, Delphi envisions that such technology will play into its integrated system of the future.
Still another case is body structure. Makers such as DaimlerChrysler are designing vehicle frames with crumple zones that give way at a downward angle, away from occupants, in a collision.
Approaching safety as an integrated system would also lead Delphi into more competition with interior suppliers.
Increasingly, technology is expected to bring such components as airbags, headliners, doors, seats and cockpits into a common function. The company's Delphi Interiors unit has already signed up a couple of customers for complete cockpits, including the Mercedes-Benz M-class sport-utility.
During the past year, Delphi has made forays into the airbag segment in partnership with Korean and Japanese firms. In recent weeks the company also has been making a bid for the assets of Breed Technologies Inc., an integrated restraint supplier.
Selling the components piecemeal is one thing. Engineering them all together will require not only the blessing of a customer, but also enough vehicle computing power to handle it.
Rohr believes the technology to handle the job already exists. He admits that some pieces are still a little 'Buck Rogers' in nature - the idea, for example, that vehicles will be able to anticipate the direction and intentions of all other autos in their vicinity.
But he adds, 'We're already doing a lot of this stuff.'
He says: 'We can do integrated safety today. You're never really all the way there. As the technology and computing power evolves, we'll be able to do more.'
The integration concept also is intended to assure customers that even if Delphi doesn't integrate all the systems, it can at least be a project expert on the various systems. Delphi believes such assurance could help it snag more individual safety components. But that in itself will lead to integration, Rohr says.
'As that trust grows,' he adds, 'you'll see complete safety systems sourced.'