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Fuel Efficiency, Customer Experience, Safety at Top of Automakers' Agenda

Made in America

Mark Shortt
Editorial Director
Design-2-Part Magazine

The automotive industry in the U.S. is on the move, in more ways than one. From its origins in the Motor City, it has since branched out to other regions, building a strong presence in the Southeastern United States, and, more recently, in Silicon Valley. Its growing momentum in the Valley is a significant indicator of what’s happening in the industry today, as it undergoes a technological transformation that is blurring the lines between technology companies and automotive companies.

What does it mean to be an automotive manufacturer today? According to Lux Research, some of the world’s most profitable and most innovative companies are increasingly viewing transportation as the next big opportunity. A host of non-conventional players, from Apple to Uber, are poised to disrupt mobility, putting transportation “on the brink of the most disruptive next 10 years it has ever seen,” according to the firm’s webinar, “0 to 100: The Rapidly Accelerating Future of Automotive Efficiency.”

Two major automotive industry trends—electrification and autonomy (namely, driver assist features for safety)—were in evidence at this year’s CES in Las Vegas. Although both represent technologies that are a long way from being considered mature, they are proof that the industry is working hard toward two major goals: meeting aggressive fuel efficiency requirements and providing experiences that customers want.

The multi-faceted nature of customer experience encourages a multi-disciplinary approach to product design and development that merges mobility with the automotive experience. Today, customers want to be constantly connected, even in their cars. Recognizing this, Ford’s Smart Mobility program is focused on efforts around connectivity, mobility, autonomous vehicles, customer experience, and data analytics.

In December, Ford announced that it would invest an additional $4.5 billion in electrified vehicle solutions by 2020, a plan that includes the addition of 13 new electrified vehicles to its product portfolio by that year. Accompanying the news was word that Ford, in an effort to make people’s lives better, is changing how it develops vehicle experiences for customers.

“The challenge going forward isn’t who provides the most technology in a vehicle, but who best organizes that technology in a way that most excites and delights people,” said Raj Nair, executive vice president of product development, in a press release. “By observing consumers, we can better understand which features and strengths users truly use and value and create even better experiences for them going forward.

“This new way of working brings together marketing, research, engineering, and design in a new way to create meaningful user experiences, rather than individually developing technologies and features that need to be integrated into a final product,” Nair continued. “We are using new insights from anthropologists, sociologists, economists, journalists, and designers, along with traditional business techniques, to reimagine our product development process, create new experiences, and make life better for millions of people.”

Automakers are also under pressure to meet ambitious targets for carbon emissions and fuel efficiency over the next decade, and are confident that technology will provide the solutions. It may not be an easy road, but OEMs industry-wide have embarked on the road to electrification. They seem to have figured out that electrification is the wave of the future, and that it can fit into every segment of vehicles, from low cost to luxury, said Anthony Schiavo, research associate at Lux Research, in a phone interview.

“I think, essentially, every automaker has at this point announced an electric vehicle,” he said. “I haven’t done a comprehensive survey, but I’d be shocked if there are any that don’t have it in the works. We’re seeing that EV momentum not just for hybrid vehicles, like the Prius, or for cars like the Leaf, or for lower cost vehicles, but also across all levels of cost and luxury.”

The reason a multi-system approach to vehicle design is necessary, Schiavo said, is that multiple options, including advanced materials, electrification, alternative fuels, and autonomous features, are currently needed on the route to achieving fuel efficiency requirements. Automakers will need access to multiple options because currently, no single solution has proven to be sufficient for the average vehicle.

Lux built a model that takes these technologies into account, comparing permutations of light-weighting, electrification, automation, and more, and focused on four very different potential pathways to meeting the 54.5 mpg targets of 2025. The model forecasts price, weight, and fuel economy.

“We considered materials from steels, aluminums, and carbon fiber composites; electrification options ranging from basic (12 volt micro-hybrid) start-stop functionality, all the way up to advanced 48 volt micro hybrid systems; autonomous options from basic driver assist all the way through fully autonomous drive; and engine and fuel options,” said Schiavo. “We considered downsizing as well as octane rating and ethanol content in the fuels.”

Essentially, the analysis went from all light-weighting and no electrification, through to less light weighting and maximum electrification. The last situation considered was 48 volt micro hybridization and aluminum light-weighting.

“In this scenario, electrification is the main driver of fuel efficiency in the vehicle, and light-weighting is only around 40 percent,” said Schiavo. “This option adds around $1700 to the price of the vehicle, far cheaper than any of the other scenarios that we considered. Our conclusion is that 48 volt micro hybrid systems are the most likely case for the future. They’re the most cost effective solution, by far, that we considered. The average vehicle sold in 2025 will rely on a 48 volt micro-hybrid and it will use aluminum and the boost in fuel efficiency from the fuel blend to meet regulatory standards.”

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