AI Online


Need to design for two worlds

One of the many joys of editing Automotive Industries issitting down and writing this column once all the copy isin, has been checked, and we are about to print. It is onlyat this point that the character and theme of the edition becomes apparent.
Reading through the copy in this edition, I was struck by how complex the motor vehicle has become. At the customer end, mechanics have to also be software technicians in order to keep thevehicles on the road, while at the front end, vehicle designers arefaced with the challenges of converging streams of informationtechnology. Seems to me it was not that long ago that it was only computer geeks and journalists who spoke about the meeting of the metaphysical in the form of data with the physical in the form of human beings or machines. 
Wonderful stuff if you are a designer. The borders are being expanded all the time, and not only in the design of the vehicle. Propulsion is fast moving from fossil fuels to electric power (ok, often generated by fossil fuels) to the perhaps more interesting biofuels – we are now talking about second,third and fourth-generation biofuels, none of which are based on food crops.
Whatever powers the vehicles, the challenge is to make them more power efficient, safer, and recyclable – combined with the equivalent of a home theatre system and more thrown in forgood measure. Good news – if you are the proud owner of a new car in a post-industrial society where the roads are paved, the potholes filled in (mostly, anyway), and there is a friendly roadside support team which can reconfigure and reboot the software under an hour away. Oh, and you replace your vehicle every five years or so, before the electronics frizzle up and die.
Not so great if you are in the majority, where roads are awful, fuel iffy, technicians scarce, and your vehicle is expected to 
last 14 years or more. I am writing from South Africa – a pretty advanced third-world country. Let’s start with the basics. We do not have the new-generation fuels needed by the latest engines. Even if we do start importing or refining the fuels in the future, there is no guarantee that they will be available throughout the country, or that fuel stations in our neighboring states will be able to offer them – severely limiting the range of the new vehicle. As readers know, fuels in places like India, China and parts of South America are even more suspect. Simply put, many of the latest-generation “world” engines will break if they do not have the right fuel. 
Which brings us to the very real challenge of keeping the vehicles going. Having travelled extensively in Southern Africa over the past year or so, I know that franchised dealers and modern workshops are few and far between. There is no reason to suspect that the situation is any different in the rural areas of Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Paraguay, India, China, Vietnam or Russia – all of which represent major existing or potential markets. 
Indian, Chinese and to some extent Korean OEMs have recognized the need for two streams of technology – one for the post-industrial world, and the other for developing nations. That is not to say we have to go back to a flat four carburetorfed Kent engine and minimal electronics. We motorists in the developing world want safety, comfort and fuel efficiency as much as those on the paved roads of Europe or the United States.
We will buy vehicles which offer that and the lowest running costs – as measured by the overall cost of ownership, which includes the speed with which a vehicle can be repaired and put back on the road. Competitively-prices spares, components designed to be fixed rather than replaced, and ease of maintenance are all part of the equation. To that must be added clearance from the bottom of the vehicle to the ground – to cope with inevitable corrugated and untarred roads. Western OEMs, which are powering themselves out of one of their biggest crises to date, could be left in the dust if they ignore the needs of the new markets.