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ICG Risk Blog - [ Tipping point in Unique Selling Proposition of complex mechanical systems and the industries that provide them ]

Tipping point in Unique Selling Proposition of complex mechanical systems and the industries that provide them


The trade press appears to now acknowledge my decade plus automotive forecast of the progression of computer intermediation in the driver-passenger experience. In the 1990s I called the car a computer with curious electro-mechanical actuators. That was succeeded in early 2000 by the car as a microprocessor array with curious electro-mechanical actuators:

The self-parking Lexus LS 460 has already shown that sensors, cameras and software can get a car to parallel-park itself. Automakers are now gearing up to include more automated driving features for even the most budget models. And further down the road, the computerized car will become part of an even larger network of highway communication.

As car systems get more complex, automakers are looking to the tech industry for help in translating their designs into working software and hardware, according to both carmakers and analysts.

That's why technology specialists like [IBM] are investing in the automotive industry and the companies that serve it. The potential payoff could be grabbing the driver's seat in a market worth billions of dollars.

"All the features you see--adaptive cruise control, autopark, lane departure warning--those are all driven by software," said Patrick Milligan, senior manager for in-vehicle software development at Ford Motor.

"Complex-software development is now increasingly critical to (automotive companies') success in innovation and competitive advantage,"

The singular computer (more a simple chipset) has become an array of microprocessors and their embedded software. The "curious electro-mechanical actuators" remain and improve, as one of my hyper-car colleagues noted:

If you don’t have the right hardware [motor/suspension/etc] no amount of computer intervention will help.

That said, the Corvette was the first mass produced active handling car, with three different computer intervention settings [traction control, yaw control, etc.] It includes a non-invasive "Competition" mode, where the active handling only kicks in a severe transient event [off road, spin, collision etc.] [[private email]

I continue to remind him that he is 6+ Sigma driver with the skill and opportunity to match vehicle to driver. Conversely, the ordinary driver will drift to his scorned "rice burners" and their ilk that, much like Japanese stereo systems that have what we call a "high science fiction coefficient" of knobs and adjustments coupled with median audio performance whose low cost relegated mainline US producers to audiophile niches, will gain the bulk of production volumes, revenues, growth - and dare I say - jobs.

I had long ago said that Sony (when it was at its electronic zenith) could badge a vehicle and that the trust factor then imbued in their electronics would transfer. (A car like the Honda Element was the kind of vehicle that I had in mind, more a mindset on wheels, a mobile den or living room, than a muscle car.) I was told that Sony "could not build a car" yet a few years later, a Tier One supplier, Magna, built a complete car just to showcase its capacity to do so. The supply base can supply ample 'mechanical actuators.'

In contrast, one of the great automotive "metal bashers," Mercedes, continues to fall on its consumer complaint sword, primarily driven by its overly complex, failure prone electronics systems. From comments from suppliers the rule seems to be that, out of its depth, Mercedes designs a flawed architecture, watches in frustration as it fails, then foists the lot onto Siemens or Bosch to sort out. Many unhappy customers inhabit that interval.

From Mercedes to Ford, metal bashers have tried to dictate too much of their electronic architectures instead of leaving them to competent suppliers moving at the speed of their industry. (In the late 1990s, we watched an OEM dictate features to a cellular phone manufacturer, thereby gaining an expensive, low volume car phone that fell behind its competition, rather than provide packaging data to the supplier and let them fill it with the state-of-the-art functionality):

One of the hottest areas in automotive technology is the development of a standard "car operating system." Just as computer operating systems, such as Microsoft's Windows Vista, allow multiple applications to communicate with one another, an automotive operating system enables different driving systems--from fuel injection to brakes to power steering to power windows--to work together.

A standard operating system that pervades multiple car brands would make it easier for developers, component manufacturers and automakers to incorporate more-sophisticated driving systems, like self-parking, into multiple car models.

IBM is deeply involved in this area, as are automakers. A group of Japanese companies, including Honda Motor, Toyota Motor, Nissan and Toshiba, is reportedly planning to forge a car operating-system standard.

There are entire product families that are shifting, or are going to shift, their unique selling proposition (USP) to computer intermediation over mechanicals, their respective 6+ Sigma users not withstanding.

I do not see the established US or European automotive OEMs having the mindset to make the turn (and I do not count battery technology or hybrids as evidence of proaction).

Projecting the high performance automobile to its margin, I look to fly-by-wire aircraft such as the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter whose advantage is said to be based on "airframe, autonomic logistics, avionics, propulsion systems, stealth, and firepower." That said, I put my money on software, electronics, materials and coatings to make the difference. Mechanicals will continue to be important but they will not be the winning differentiator.

Body of a car, brains of a PC
By Candace Lombardi
Story last modified Mon Aug 13 05:53:14 PDT 2007

Gordon Housworth

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