Gary Smyth, executive director global research and development at General Motors, recently listed the following skills required to move a modern car from inception to the showroom floor: battery chemists, electrical engineers, manufacturing experts, software developers and social media operators.
Taking him a bit out of context, it is instructive to note that there is no mention of traditional jobs such as an assembler, a motor mechanic, or an automotive engineer. Information technology is clearly now the driving force behind vehicle design, development and manufacturing. Robots do the work of assemblers mechanics now plug laptops into ports to diagnose faults, and automotive engineers do most of their design work using powerful software tools.
But, no matter how good and powerful the machine, it needs a person behind the controls – and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future. OEMs and Tier manufacturers wanting to stay competitive and relevant will need to find ways of identifying, recruiting, training and retaining a new generation of petrol heads – possibly those who have grown up playing Need for Speed, Project Cars and Grand Theft Auto rather than hanging around in the sun and rain absorbing the fumes and action at the local race track.
Electrification is one of the major forces behind this shift. Although electric vehicles have not made significant inroads into the market, all vehicles are rapidly becoming more electronic and less mechanical. Motors have replaced window winders, hydraulic power steering and a growing number of other functions as “drive by wire” technology starts becoming mainstream. Traction motors boost engine power when moving from a stop or accelerating.
This is just one example of where mechanical, electric and electronic components are merging – and all are producing dizzying amounts of information which needs to be analyzed in real time. OEMs now need teams of data analysts or very strong and close working relationships with specialized data companies if they want to retain control of what have become the core differentiators – vehicle connectivity and the technology-driving motoring experience. It is one thing to manage the data, but quite another to understand how information can be used to enhance the driving and ownership experience. Wanted – computer whizzes with petrol in their veins. It is a rare combination.
But one that has to be found or developed. Smart data can either make the journey more pleasant or confuse the driver. Think early VCRs. Very few of us could ever figure out how to program the machine or to use a fraction of the buttons on the remote. Many smartphones suffer from the same malaise. With the integration of smartphone technology into cars the last thing we want designers to do is to overwhelm the driver with options and processes. Techies have to be schooled to focus on the functionality rather than all the cool stuff the smartphone/car can do.
It is also all too easy to forget the basics – cars need bodies and tires to ride on, and interiors in which occupants can sit. New plastics and metal alloys are constantly changing the goalposts here as motor manufacturers focus on reducing weight while improving ride quality and safety. In many ways designers have to “unlearn” what they know about bodies and interiors – plastics and composites are far more malleable than metals and open up a world of new opportunities.
They also introduce new challenges. There is no perfect technology. It is a brave new world. The industry needs to ensure it has equipped the next generation of car people with the right toolbox of skills to give the customers what they want and need – even if the motorists themselves don’t know or understand the technology that is making driving safer, more environmentally friendly and more comfortable. Looks like a good business opportunity for tertiary training institutions