DETROIT -- Massive computing power and advanced graphics have revolutionized video games. Now they're doing the same to the auto industry.
Engineers and designers are using computers to create and test new parts and vehicle technology at astonishing speeds.
For instance, in just eight months a team of Ford Motor Co. engineers redesigned a major portion of the 2012 Mustang's 5.0-liter V-8, the "top end" or valvetrain, intake and exhaust manifolds and cylinder heads. A decade ago, the job required about two and a half years, the company says.
Suppliers and automakers, using computer data, can create, test and improve parts before a physical prototype is built. In some cases, parts are tested so thoroughly in the computer that engineers skip prototypes and early tooling and go directly to production tooling.
"Ten years ago, we would spend a year with three to four designers laying out the block and the head, and now we spend two to three months, with one designer doing the block and one doing the head," says Jagadish Sorab, a technical leader in engine development for Ford.
What does today's fast pace mean to the final product, the finished auto in showrooms?
Experts say faster development times enable automakers to load more equipment and advanced features into autos at reasonable prices. Time is money, and computers cut both.
Computers are "responsible for improved quality, for more of the features that consumers demand in their vehicle, and the better fit-and-finish on vehicles today," says Bob Sheaves, a former Chrysler engineer and now a Detroit-area consultant.
Take the 2013 Dodge Dart, due in showrooms this quarter. Here's a sampling of features on the Dart that were absent from the vehicle it replaced on the assembly line, the Dodge Caliber: a 7-inch customizable display for the instrument cluster, active grille shutters for increased fuel efficiency, a redesigned 2.0 inline-four engine, in-seat storage, a backup camera and an 8.4-inch infotainment screen.
Despite the list of new advanced features, the Dart's base sticker is an affordable $16,790, including destination.
Moreover, the accelerating speed of product innovation is prompting some automakers, such as Chrysler Group, to find faster ways to judge suppliers' ideas and give them "yes" or "no" answers within two months.