DETROIT - It's an awkward moment for the auto industry: Technology has rushed it to the doorstep of changes that fit perfectly into the industry's obsession with cost slashing.
But today's top executives, schooled in an era of mechanical drawings and clay models, are afraid to take off the training wheels and rely solely on tantalizing technologies.
So automakers and their suppliers create products with redundancies, fail-safes and unnecessary steps because that's the way customers want it.
'Do we need a prototype any more? No. Could we go straight from math model to steel without a prototype? No question,' said Jeffrey Mickel, senior vice president for sales and marketing at U.S. lighting maker Guide Corp. 'We can do that. The accuracy of our new modeling systems is amazing.'
At the SAE World Congress in Detroit last week, Mickel showed visitors a computer simulation of how a headlight will work. The display is photographic in its realistic quality.
'But,' he adds, 'our customer really likes to have that prototype he can touch and feel.'
The cost of a lighting system prototype? 'A million dollars,' Mickel says. 'Maybe several hundred thousand.'
Computer advances in Silicon Valley can't seem to arm the industry with enough confidence to dispense with tradition. The General Motors mid-sized sport-utility platform launched in Moraine, Ohio, was almost completely developed on a computer system.
In the end, GM created a full-scale clay model for engineers to look at - just to verify the computer data.
'I like to see the clay,' said Tom Wallace, the GM executive on the project.
'You still want to see it in 3-D,' Wallace said last week after addressing Detroit's Automotive Press Association. 'Will clay ever go away altogether? Twenty years from now I'll bet there's no clay.'
GM also used simulations to satisfy federal regulators on three different safety tests for the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, GMC Envoy and Oldsmobile Bravada. But other safety tests still required efforts such as smashing a costly prototype truck into a wall.
When will the industry transmit its virtual test data to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for approval? Wallace shrugs. Maybe when young people who have been weaned on computers are running the federal government, he agrees.
Metal on metal
Automotive companies are giddy about the potential savings in time and money with their computer-based design and engineering tools. Ron Kirsch, a sales engineer at MTS Systems Corp. of Minneapolis, showed visitors at his SAE World Congress booth the latest in MTS' noise and vibration simulation equipment. The tools can analyze the sounds of a door or trunk lid.
'We have customers sometimes tell us, `I want the door switch to sound like a BMW door switch,' ' Kirsch says. 'We can do that.'
But, he adds, when it comes to delivery, somebody has to take prototypes of the car door and switch, put them together and see what the metal bumping the metal sounds like.
'You're talking about psycho-acoustics,' Kirsch said.
In other words, you're talking about human psychology.
A few extra sensors
American industry is so paranoid about consumer lawsuits and multimillion-dollar jury verdicts that manufacturers hesitate to go out on any limb.
Airbags are the quintessential example. Though commercially available in the 1970s, the industry resisted installing them until the early 1990s. Then consumers sued automakers, such as Ford Motor Co., for failing to use them sooner. Then consumers sued for making the airbags too powerful, forcing the industry to offer on-off switches.
To make sure the devices worked, automakers placed redundant crash sensors around the front ends of their vehicles. Now, to make sure they don't work when not wanted, advanced system makers, such as TRW Automotive, place redundant sensing power in passenger seats.
Robert Bosch GmbH and other global brake suppliers are sitting on the technology to make electronic braking work. The systems are sure to delight their automaker customers. They work with computer control modules that send electronic signals instead of messy hydraulic fluid. They are lighter in weight, require fewer parts and can be tuned so that one system can fit many different vehicles - all of which spell potential cost savings.
But the industry isn't ready.
Bosch's newest brakes are electro-hydraulic. While they brake electronically, they also carry a redundant hydraulic system. In the event of an electronic failure, a mechanical shuttle will throw power back to the master cylinder, enabling the vehicle to brake the old fashioned way.
The fail-safe is a handful of parts - a pair of brake lines that would supply hydraulic fluid, for example, and the fluid itself. Theoretically, the backup never will be used.
Meanwhile, Siemens estimates pure electronic brakes are another nine years away from the U.S. market.
When will the industry relax and accept that the new gadgets work well enough to dispense with fail-safes and unnecessary work?
'That's the million dollar question,' says Paul Shelton, director for sales and marketing at IDIADA Automotive Technology, a Spanish-based vehicle testing company. 'You can do it all by simulation now, except that the government requires real-life testing. And clay models, you don't need them any more. Virtual simulation is better and less expensive.
'But there are people who still want them,' he says. 'Namely, the customer.'