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Consider the Concepts in Terms of Capabilities and Competencies

Although these concept vehicles aren't presently in production, they provide some substantial clues with regard to where the automakers are going in the years ahead. The question is: Can you help make them?

The North American International Auto Show is held every year in Detroit. In fact, during the past few years it has grown to the extent that it is equal to any of the world's major motor shows.

Concept vehicles, to be sure, are devised as catnip for the crowds. But frankly, there is much more to them.

In introducing Chrysler's lineup of concept vehicles at the North American show, Thomas C. Gale, executive vice president of Product Development for that corporation, ticked off five reasons why they do concept cars at Chrysler:

1. To explore new design trends.

2. To look at vehicles that may answer specific questions raised by society with regard to issues like the environment, traffic congestion, fuel, and the like. "Sometimes," he admitted, "we are answering questions that no one ever asked."

3. To "hint directly at the designs of future products." Not only do they want people to become familiar with what will be coming, but Gale said, "They let us experiment with proportion, process and technology."

4. To "creatively explore possibilities within our current platforms."

5. "Last, but certainly not least, to have fun."

There is another way of looking at these vehicles, especially for people at supplier companies that make components for the OEMs. That's in the light of:

 

What will the characteristics of these vehicles mean in terms of what we do?

As you look at the vehicles shown here, a sampling of the introductions in Detroit, run down some of the ramifications that they may present for your company. For example, if you're in the die making business, consider whether you have the CAD/CAM and machining capability to generate the necessary curves and character lines and what have you. In some cases, the materials are different: do you have adequate know-how there? Head and tail lamps certainly aren't what they once were. Doors aren't even opening the same way they once did.

Being delighted by seeing cool-looking show cars is fun. But being prepared to take advantage of what may come is certainly more appealing.

 

Do you make paint? Do you mold plastic?

Affordability is a key consideration. So the Plymouth Pronto was developed on a modified Neon chassis for first-time car buyers. An interesting aspect of the Pronto is actually a concept for the concept. That is, although the vehicle as built has a steel uni-body, according to K. Neil Walling, Chrysler's design director, the plan would be to utilize acrylonitrile/styrene/acrylate (ASA) plastic body panels instead of the steel. The color would be molded into the plastic. Walling said this could help affordability because: (1) no money would need to be spent in the assembly plant for a paint shop; (2) no money would be spent on paint; (3) processing costs would be reduced since no painting would be performed.

 

Do you make glass? Do you produce transmission components?

The Oldsmobile Alero Alpha sport coupe is packed with features that aren't necessarily discernible from just looking at it. The head lamps are projector-type lights; the tail lamps are liquid-crystal components. The roof of the vehicle is fabricated from two removable glass panels. In cases when the car isn't driven in an open-top mode, the driver and the passenger can individually adjust the opacity of the glass panels.

The traditional transmission shifter gives way to controls mounted in the inner diameter of the steering wheel ring. (Finger-tip shifting buttons are also used on the steering wheel of the Lexus HPS [High Performance Sedan] concept. Its transmission works as both an automatic and a manual—downshifts being done with the thumb and upshifts with the index finger.)

The Alero Alpha is a keyless car. The mechanical key—for door opening and ignition—is replaced by an electronic fob.

 

Do you make doors? Do you mold fascias?

The Pontiac Rageous is a sport coupe with several differences. For one thing, a coupe ordinarily has two doors, and the doors tend to be long, on the order of 57 in. or more. The Rageous does have two doors, but they measure just 48-in. wide; they open to 67o. But in addition to the doors there are rear-hinged access panels on each side of the vehicle. The access panels open to 87°, thereby greatly enhancing access to the rear seats. (Rear-hinged access panels are also employed on the Mercury MC4 concept, which also features a winged trunk opening.)

There is extensive use of molded components on the Rageous. One interesting piece is the rear fascia. Beyond being just a decorative item, it actually extends beneath the car and encloses the exhaust, rear suspension, and fuel tank.

 

Do you make sunroofs or convertibles?

Although the Open View sports utility concept vehicle from Germany's Wilhelm Karmann GmbH is, itself, rather imposing, the point of the exercise, or "study," as German companies refer to such things, is to demonstrate a new approach to roof systems. According to Karmann engineers, it represents the third generation of open roof systems. The first generation is the conventional soft top convertible. The second generation is the retractable hardtop, such as that available on the Mercedes SLK. Now there's this, a roof consisting of four polycarbonate panels.

The front panel tilts up like a spoiler. Panels two and three fold up and back so that they are vertically oriented; they slide down into a storage compartment that's just behind the second row of seats. The fourth panel, which is at the rear of the vehicle, pivots back, vertical, and into the same storage area. This folding process, which is electro hydraulically actuated, takes approximately 30 seconds. Karmann did this study to show that it can be done—and to indicate that it has the wherewithal to do it for a vehicle manufacturer (it works for minivans and limos, too) within three years (one year for design and two for tooling development).

 

LH No More—No Paper, Either (Sidebar)

Five years ago, Chrysler Corp. put itself solidly in the sedan market with a group of cars, including the Chrysler Concorde and Dodge Intrepid, that were commonly categorized as the "LH" cars, based on the program designation.

"No longer can these cars be grouped as Chrysler's `LH,' sedans," says Ron Boltz, vice president-Product Strategy/Regulatory Affairs and general manager of Large Car Operations, of the second-generation Concorde and Intrepid. "The 1998 Chrysler Concorde and Dodge Intrepid make bold but very different statements, each one designed from earliest stages of development with different kinds of customers in mind." The Chrysler version is elegant; the Intrepid is sporty.

The new vehicles are the result of Chrysler's first "paperless" car development program. The cars, as well as the engines, were developed using CATIA software. Observes John C. Miller, general manager-Large Car Platform Engineering, "The end result is a design and manufacturing process that yields much higher quality levels right from the very start while getting the most efficient use out of our development dollars."

Speaking of dollars, the total investment is $2.1 billion. Development time: 31 months. The cars will go into full production this fall at the Chrysler plant in Bramalea, Ontario.