Automakers and electronics suppliers are headed for a technology showdown: how to reconcile the speed at which electronics come to market vs. the slower pace of automotive product design. How fast is too fast?
Consumer electronics makers are geared to roll out products every six months, whereas it takes automakers about 36 months to design and produce a vehicle. For automakers, the problem is how to integrate technology that risks becoming obsolete with vehicles that have life cycles of seven to 10 years.
That's compounded by consumer expectations of defect-free vehicles and longer ownership cycles. At the same time, automakers such as Hyundai Motor Co. and the Chrysler group have made long-term warranty coverage a key part of their marketing efforts.
The "too fast" issue receives an airing at the SAE World Congress in a panel discussion on Monday, March 3.
"My goal is to stimulate discussion about the respective responsibilities of OEMs and suppliers and identify potential solutions to the implicit conflict between speed and reliability," says panel moderator Bernard Robertson, senior vice president for engineering technologies and regulatory affairs for the Chrysler group.
One solution, automakers suggest, is to slow down the introduction of systems.
"If we introduce features too fast, the customer will be dissatisfied, and we may poison the well for future developments," Robertson says. Embedded cell phones and wireless concierge services are two cases in point, he says.
About 30 percent of total vehicle content is electronics related. That content spans a wide range of systems, from powertrain and chassis controls, safety equipment and comfort and convenience items.
Suppliers are attuned to the speed issues with electronics equipment, says Kregg Wiggins, powertrain vice president at Siemens VDO Automotive in Auburn Hills, Mich.
"It's come to a head, and there's no end in sight," says Wiggins, who will be a member of the discussion panel at the SAE event. "We're forced to synchronize. We know consumer electronics are shortening and the product life cycle is lengthening."
Wiggins says, "But we're not going to throttle back when you see 60 to 80 electronic microcontrols on some products today."
Consumer expectations are another key factor. Customers who buy a set of headphones at a discount store have predetermined expectations of quality and reliability.
"But if the same technology is put into vehicles that cost $20,000 to $60,000, it ... has to withstand a more robust environment but you have different consumer expectations," says Jacqui Dedo, general manager for Motorola Automotive of Farmington Hills, Mich., and a member of the SAE panel.
"We're growing so fast in proportion to anything else that it's caused some reliability and customer satisfaction issues," Dedo says. Electronics suppliers will have to improve reliability to satisfy automakers but still push new technology in future vehicles, she adds.
One solution being considered by suppliers is to ensure that electronic devices in vehicles can be upgraded, much the same as computer software.
"We've put in place service parts groups dedicated to re-engineering products to assure service parts and components are available six to seven years after they're sold," Wiggins says. "No matter how many generations ahead we go, this generation product will be available for 2003 minivans seven years down the road."