Automotive innovation is changing the way we drive

But is the industry up to the challenge?

Rachel-MatthewsSAN FRANCISCO, CA, Jun 10, 2014/ Troy Media/ -Now more than ever, it is not ‘your father’s automobile’.

This expression, of course, was famously used as an advertising campaign in the late 1980s for the redesigned Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. While the Oldsmobile itself no longer exists as a company, the expression can be borrowed and applied to the industry as a whole. The adopted slogan would then be something like this: “This is not your father’s automobile industry.”

And it is not. In fact, due to the startling changes taking place in auto engineering, the industry now looks like it is a deer caught in its own headlights.

For most of the past 130-year history of the automobile, the changes have been a predictable – a linear progression that starts with the Model-T Ford and its rivals and continues through to most cars on the road today.

Today’s cars are larger, heavier, more aerodynamic, safer, more varied and more creatively designed than their predecessors. And while there have been brilliant innovations (anti-lock brakes, power steering, automatic transmissions, air bags, to name a few) that have created a scramble for supremacy in the market place, a car is still a car. Those innovations pale in comparison to the game-changing advances that are appearing now or are just beyond the next bend in the road.

The two biggest game changers are fairly obvious:

New energy, new engines

Given the amount of domestic natural gas now available with new drilling techniques, Oklahoma-based energy industry tycoon T. Boone Pickens is advocating that every car in the country be changed from running on gasoline to natural gas. Good-bye petroleum. It is time for a change.

This is only one indication of the new possibilities and it is hardly the only one. General Motors with the Volt and Nissan with the Leaf are breaking the ground for a potential shift to cars powered by electricity – cars so quiet people have asked for artificial noises to be added to them so that a pedestrian can hear them coming along.

Hybrids are part of the initiative to reduce power needs with the help of modern innovations. Toyota’s hybrid Prius is the No. 1 example, the one every company wishes they had built. It gets twice the mileage of many cars on the road today, looks snappy and comfortable, drives well and beats all other hybrids in popularity.

The Prius appeared in 1997 (GM’s Volt made its debut in 2014) and sales of the hybrid have reached one million in both the United States and Japan.

Automated computer technology and microchipping

Google is developing a car that needs no driver. The prototype has been accumulating miles in everyday traffic situations for several years.

This week, Google passed the point of no return, literally, in the development of the autonomous car by announcing it had built a robotic vehicle that does not even have a steering wheel, a throttle or brakes that a person could use to take over in the event of robot failure. This is an autonomous vehicle from the ground up, so to speak.

The microchip, of course, has done much more for the industry than that, but while the influences have been distant from most human interaction until now, that is changing rapidly as well.

For example, the microchip has altered the auto repair industry for some time now. Cars are routinely plugged into computerized diagnostic equipment to find what might be wrong when problems arise. But now the influence of the microchip is showing up in the cab of the vehicle itself, with Global Positioning Systems, entertainment centres, and communication options (such as Internet capabilities.) These are innovations that never came close to a Cutlass Supreme.

But the big question remains: How will we engineer, build, sell and maintain the next generation of vehicles? Do we have the engineers to make this happen?

Some industry changes come along so fast, or are so dramatic, that they need workforce innovations to keep pace with modern engineering.

You cannot have radical changes in engineering without mechanics who are in the loop, without assemblers who know what they are doing and without a sales force in the showroom who can communicate the changes to customers.

To date, automobile workforce solutions appear to be keeping up with the game-changing shifts in the industry. The parts and repair industries are not falling behind, as a new breed of engineers move into positions as automobile designers.

Take the sales force, for example. If the reason behind the hybrid engine system involves energy consumption or recalculating the environmental impact in an effort to slow down climate change, then a sales staff is needed that understands the issues. If the standard salesman can sell a car that is bright red or metallic blue and has power steering and anti-lock brakes, how do you sell a car that has a bragging point of reducing the environmental side effects of driving? You need a total workforce to stand behind the changes. Innovation has to be thorough. It can’t stop at the engineering department.

At a distance, the automobile industry looks like it is settled in its old patterns – just like your father’s Oldsmobile. There is, after all, a lot at stake. It is frightening to see companies as large as Ford Motor Company, General Motors or Chrysler attempt to change direction, especially when changes are coming along so rapidly.

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