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C.A.R 2014 MBS Day 1
Vehicle Future: Lightweighting



By Steve Purdy
Michigan Bureau

Here we are again, in Michigan’s beautiful north country, Traverse City to be precise, where once each year during the touristy summer season the movers and shakers of the auto industry meet to talk about what’s new in the business and what the future will bring. Organized and hosted by Ann Arbor-based Center for Automotive Research the Management Briefing Seminars draw executives, engineers, analysts and media from around the world to predict and pontificate while soaking up the region’s ambiance.

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
Jay Baron, Center for Automotive Research CEO, Photo by Bob Benko
CAR CEO, Jay Baron, opened the session on manufacturing with the observation that auto plants are not what they used to be. Anyone who has been in an old auto plant but not a new one would be amazed at the clean, bright and quiet environment in which a car gets made. The anachronistic image of the loud, dirty, oily auto plant, he said, makes it hard for the auto industry to attract top talent in engineering or manufacturing.

One reason for the timing of this conference is that the MBS, more than most events, goes beyond expectations in entertaining families making a great opportunity to combine a family vacation with this important conference. While we are all busting our buns gathering the news and evaluating the trends the lobby of the Grand Traverse Resort is buzzing with kids and moms in bathing suits and adventure clothing. The beauty of summer in Traverse City would be tough to beat anywhere in the world.

The auto industry has outpaced the general economy during the slow recovery from the dismal days after the 2008 crash. While industry leaders throughout the tough years remained optimistic, at this year’s MBS conference there is now much more confidence to go with that optimism. We are now approaching a high water mark in auto sales as the analysts agree that we will easily achieve something over 17 million light vehicle sales by 2018. But they also agree that the industry will also look much different than it did the last time we were close to those numbers in 2000.

Here is what we are discovering here on day one:

“Light-weighting” was a big theme. As we all know, one certain way to enhance fuel mileage is to make vehicles lighter. The industry continues to explore a plethora of methods of taking weight out of vehicles and this is a great place to learn about what the engineers are thinking.

One of the engineers’ favorite ways to lighten vehicles is to use more aluminum in both the body and substructure of automobiles and light trucks. Ford made big news at the Detroit auto show this year by announcing the new F-150 will have an aluminum body. Competitors have hinted they may go the same way. If they do, will there be enough aluminum to go around? Alcoa’s VP for automotive, Mike Murphy, told the conferees there will probably be enough for automotive because those products are “high-margin.” Low-margin uses, like soda cans, that might suffer. Alcoa is making huge investments now in “automotive-specific capacity.”

Another way of light weighting is the use of more high-strength steel. Toyota engineer in charge of “body-in-white” (the completed body before it is painted and married to chassis components), Takefumi Shiga, talked about using Ultra-high-strength steel and aluminum to save weight but added carbon fiber to that list as well. Carbon fiber has mostly been used in race cars and other money-is-no-object applications, but that may be changing. Others, here and elsewhere, are talking about the cost of carbon fiber coming down enough to make it practical, or at least reasonable, to use in more mainstream applications.

Jaguar Land Rover, now Indian-owned after being part of Ford for many years, has been a leader in light weighting and in the use of aluminum. To replace Ford-sourced engines they will soon introduce a new line of engines developed in-house using what they call Ingenium that reduce engine weight as much as 176 pounds. In addition to the light weighting in their new small XE sedan (BMW 3-Series size) Jaguar touted the diesel version of the car they expect will get around 40 mpg. We won’t know right away whether they will bring that powertrain to the U.S. when the car comes next spring, but we can always hope. I’m a big fan of modern diesels, and am disappointed so far not to hear much about new ones here at MBS.

Another main topic of day one was that of advanced manufacturing. If memory serves, that has been a topic at each of these conferences I’ve covered over the past dozen years. Robotics, more worker involvement in the process, along with ever more software-dependent controls for both assembly and product management lead the list of innovations. VP of development at software company Plex, Jason Prater talked about the near future where workers on the shop floor are not replaced by machines but will become integrated with robotics by wearing vests, glasses and watches that become sensors, much like computer animation uses body suits to simulate movement for films. He also said that manufacturing will be cloud-connected and more dependent on mobile digital devices like smart phones and tablets.

Finishing our day was the annual beach party hosted by tier-one supplier, Continental. In addition to food, entertainment and usually a spectacular sunset, they always provide something new representing future technology offerings. This year it was a concept for what they call 360-Degree Surround View, the next generation of safety systems that allow the driver to see entirely around the car using high-resolution cameras at each corner of the car and a large display integrated into the rear-view mirror. There are systems in production now that provide a full-around view but they are static. The driver controls this system by using a small touchpad integrated into the shift knob that can change the view, provide 3-D capability and eventually help flesh out driverless car technologies.

Tomorrow we will be immersed in powertrain innovations, market predictions and much more. Stay tuned.

ęSteve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved