During the next year, Neil Schilke aims to facilitate advances in automotive technology and improve involvement in the industry's largest engineering organization.
Schilke will become president of the Society of Automotive Engineers Inc. March 8 at the conclusion of the SAE 2001 World Congress in Detroit. The 60-year-old General Motors engineering executive comes into the post at a time when some large automotive suppliers such as Delphi Automotive Systems Corp. and Visteon Corp. have drastically reduced their involvement in SAE's annual automotive engineering event.
Schilke discussed that and other issues with Staff Reporter Amy Wilson.
What is your background and engineering expertise?
I started working for GM in 1960 in the manufacturing area at Chevrolet. I moved to the research labs and was there for 20-some years and worked in the engine area, vehicle aerodynamics, noise research and various other areas. In 1984, I was manager of a special project to create a systems engineering capability for General Motors. Once we had that job done, I moved into the Chevrolet-Pontiac-Canada car group to take systems engineering into application in the company. And then in 1996, I became general director of engineering and product planning at GM of Canada. Then recently I just moved back to the United States to go on special assignment within the company to be SAE president.
Coming into the presidency, what are some of the main issues you see facing SAE and how will you address those issues?
There's just loads of opportunities out there today. There are three things I'm trying to do as SAE president, and I've classified them under the titles of impact, involvement and innovation.
In the impact area, I'm trying to make sure we are involved in helping our constituent industries bring new technologies to reality. We want to be involved in things like fuel cells and 42-volt systems and things like that in the automotive business because those are the new areas that require interaction in a technical society like SAE.
In the involvement area, I'm really trying to rekindle, improve and restart where necessary the participation of engineers in SAE and the addition of new members, both in North America as well as globally.
And in the innovation area, we're trying to create the mechanisms to help innovations in our industry, and we're trying to be innovative within the society itself. We're doing everything electronically; we're even going to do some meetings online. (The first is an Oct. 16-18 meeting on in-vehicle electronics called Digital Car.)
What is your position on establishing standards for emerging technologies, especially these electronic/multimedia technologies?
First, if you're going to establish standards, you've got to make sure they're really standards of substance. SAE has got a long history of creating the right kind of standards that will have the consensus of industry and will stand the test of time. When you have new technologies coming at our industry, such as electronics and fuel cells, it's enormously important that we do have standards to try and limit the variation and the consequence cost that random approaches would produce.
What is SAE's level of cooperation with other standards-setting organizations?
We've got a pretty rich history there. We are a player with most of the standard-setting bodies, let me say the high quality standard-setting bodies in the world. I think we definitely compete with the ad hoc players because we think the way the high-quality people do it is the way it ought to be done.
Where should that cooperation go in the future? What are the issues and challenges?
Whenever you get new technical areas, you've got new players and new challenges to tackle. Globalization is another challenge. Frankly, the companies and countries other than in North America are really recognizing standards as being very strategic and powerful mechanisms. And so we try to help glue that all together, and that's not without its difficulties.
In terms of standards and emerging technologies, what are your goals for the next year for areas you'd like to explore?
If we stay with the electronics and fuel cells, those are areas where I'd like to see us make strong headway in the standards business.
SAE is looking at the so-called 15-second rule for telematics devices (meaning in-motion tasks must take less than 15 seconds to complete). What is your position?
I have to tell you I don't have position on that. The whole area of driver distraction is one that is very complicated. We need to recognize the primary task of the driver is to drive. So we need to have very careful management and balance of things coming into the vehicle. I'm really encouraged with the development of many of the hands-off systems emerging into the vehicle. I'm a part of General Motors, and when I watch what's going on with our OnStar system, it's the right way to go.
In terms of fuel cells, what are the issues to look at?
We need to get a lot of players together in the fuel cell area. We're putting together a fuel cell technology summit that's going to be held in San Jose, Calif., in June (June 11-13). The idea there is to bring together all the OEMs and component suppliers and the subsystem suppliers and really get our arms around what are the issues and challenges with regard to standards. So we're going to have the SAE standards committees attend this two-day conference, and then on the third day, the standards committees are going to lay out their basic action plan for what they need to do going forward. Those standards are going to be everything from fuel handling systems to interface standards to sizes and tolerance requirements and things like that. The important part of that is that SAE doesn't sit aside and think of these things itself. The thing that SAE does is bring together all the players to get the definition of what the problem is, and then we facilitate the mechanisms to help solve the problems.
Has 42 volts emerged as the ideal standard for future power requirements in vehicles, or are some players unsure?
There are other companies asking the question of whether 42 volts is enough. It's a major issue, but I think a lot of that segues into the discussion of hybrid vehicles. Where are we going to go with hybrids and what kind of electrical power requirements are on board there? Certainly, my view is if you take the next extension of our conventional vehicles, whatever that is, that 42 volts is a reasonable answer. But I don't think it's ever going to be the final answer.
With some suppliers pulling back from World Congress this year, what message does that send to SAE? What are your ideas to address the concerns those companies have expressed?
We've met with the suppliers through the Original Equipment Suppliers Association. We've got really a two-step effort to enhance the exhibit at the Congress. We're going to implement some of that this year. Now that's not going to bring back the suppliers that withdrew, but it will give us the opportunity to implement some of the changes that are in direct response to their requests. For example, we're going to have the areas where we will have the ability to have private proprietary discussions. We will have some special technology areas. We're going to have a technical pavilion at the exhibit sponsored by Microsoft, so we're trying to do some different things.
I put together a special task force to address the other things that SAE should be doing to meet suppliers' needs. As the industry's changed, the role of the supplier has changed dramatically, and the mega suppliers like Delphi and Visteon have as much responsibility for interaction through the other tiers of suppliers as the OEMs do. So we need to be responsive to those dynamics, and we're trying to do that. This isn't something that just SAE is doing, to try and go into a think tank and try to figure out what suppliers want. We actually have kingpins of the Tier 1 suppliers involved in this.
What does the engineering employment environment look like in the future? How are SAE's educational efforts going, and how might the ongoing industry downturn and job reductions affect employment?
I don't know how the balance sheet comes out. There's the continuing pressure to reduce headcount at the same time there's projections that we're going to have an engineering deficiency that's fairly dramatic over the next decade. What I see is that nobody is backing away from the support for technical, science and engineering education. Everybody still thinks that's the right thing to do and that we're going to need the technical talent going forward. If the opportunity shifts from the OEMs to the suppliers to new players on the block - if we look at the electronics industry and its infusion into the automotive business - tremendous opportunities are there. So I think the demand for engineers is going to continue at a very high level.
What about SAE's efforts to encourage young people to go into the field?
We've really had an exciting experience with our elementary education programs. Our program called A World in Motion continues to be very successful, from the standpoint of touching a lot of young people and getting them interested and committed to technical education. We've just expanded the SAE Foundation into Canada. Those foundations exist specifically to fund educational programs. We see expanded opportunities there. We also need to continue with the enticement of women and minorities into engineering to improve those pipelines. We've got some things we're working on now to make that happen. One thing I've done as SAE president-elect is form a diversity acceleration group in the minority area.
With all the advances in computer engineering and design, are global engineering staffs of OEMs and suppliers working together more on the same projects - the 24-hour engineering vision?
Absolutely. Within my own company, one of the major features of each of our engineering entities has been a global collaboration center, which enables us to move video, voice and data around the world. And it's the data movement that we haven't had before, where we can do that now in the last year or so.