When we first met David Robinson, it was in Stuttgart, where he was executive vice president of Diesel Fuel Injection Technology at Robert Bosch. He’s back in the U.S.—at Bosch’s facility in Farmington Hills, Michigan—and is now the corporation’s president, Automotive Body Electrical and Electronic Div. Which, given the reception of diesels for passenger cars in the U.S., is undoubtedly a good move. In his present position, Robinson and his team are responsible for sensing systems, bodywork electrics, on-board electronic network components, audio and navigation systems, and motors for manufacturers that are building product in the NAFTA region. Which means that they’re designing, engineering, and producing everything from relays and switches to small motors, airbag sensors to semiconductors, windshield wiper systems to entertainment systems. In 2001, the business generated revenues of $670-million in North America.
All of which is to say that Robinson has a full slate—and one that will grow, both due to regulatory issues (e.g., they’ve developed an occupant weight-sensing system that is based on four sensor bolt load cells in a seat structure that evaluates passenger weight, thereby distinguishing kids and adults for purposes of airbag deployment, to comply with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208; it is targeted for model year 2006 programs) as well as technology developments (e.g., Ford is offering a Blaupunkt MP3 radio on the ’03 Focus models, a digital technology that will undoubtedly proliferate). And the probability of 42-volt architecture (although the time of implementation seems to ever recede, Robinson says it is a matter of “when, not if”) which will be driven by demands for reduced fuel consumption and lower CO2 emissions, will mean the utilization of greater electronic and electrical devices in vehicles. Robinson says that Bosch has done the necessary engineering that will permit “most of our products to move quickly to 42-volt. It’s not a product issue. The development and preparation work has been done. It’s a market issue.”
And the market plays large in the consideration of how well, or to what extent, electronics will make their way into vehicles. “It comes down to a price/benefit ratio: What does the consumer want to pay for?” One of the tasks that Robinson and his colleagues undertake is to convince OEM customers as well as supplier companies, be they focused under the hood or on interiors, of the consumer benefits of the technology that they’ve developed.
Reliability & Longevity
While there is some question about why automotive electronics don’t have the same fast product turns as are characteristics of consumer electronics of the sort you can pick up at your local Circuit City, Robinson cautions, “Don’t underestimate the integration process into a vehicle. You don’t put a PC into an automotive environment.” At least not if you want it to work. Robinson continues, “The ability to deliver features is straight-forward. But to be able to have something that will still perform 20 years from now in the Mohave Desert is something else.” He adds, “And there’s absolutely no compromise when it comes to safety-related devices.” Consider: an airbag installed today still needs to do its job 10 years from now. To be sure that what they’re engineering is up to the demands of its task—be it a windshield wiper system (which gets tested for 1.5 million wipes) or an electronics board—they’ve created a 41,000-ft2 test lab in Farmington Hills totally dedicated to electronics. They’re baking products. Shaking products. And doing just about anything else that will provide the necessary performance data.
“The demand for electronics keeps growing,” Robinson says. But at the end of the day, it all comes down to one thing: not the technology, but the cost efficiency. Without it, electronics are nothing more than items on a shelf.