As I sit and write this, the future is far from clear. There is worry that the war on terrorism is going to be a long, tough, often murky slog. Nothing seems stable, and this uncertainty is piled on top of an economy that already was trending down.
Far from a time for doom and gloom, I see this as an opportunity for the auto industry to remake itself in preparation for any disruptions, as well as the good times that inevitably will come. When backed against the wall, automakers can perform miracles Unfortunately, it won't be easy to change the status quo.
For years now, the auto industry has been plagued by overcapacity, a reliance on stamp-and-weld technology to produce nearly all of its vehicles, and an increase in vehicle weight. Each of these problems is eroding the very fabric of the industry and leading it toward even rougher seas. Something must be done–and soon–to turn the ship around.
Stamped-and welded steel structures still make sense for many high-volume vehicles, and much can be done through a combination of advanced materials, load path optimization, and forming technology to drive weight down without adversely affecting rigidity or crash performance. There is even a chance to use this opportunity to copy submarine construction practices and modularize structures around bulkheads in some applications.
Vehicles utilizing this construction method could be completed inside and out on a section-by-section basis, then joined together to form a complete unit. It would require a lean and agile construction method that also allows large-scale demand-pull assembly of a variety of body styles through mix-and-match methods.
Ditto for the unique construction approach Rod Trenne and Dave McLellan described in the July issue of this magazine (see "Speed to Market", p. 50). Stiff, light honeycomb composite chassis replace steel monocoque structures. Assembly becomes quick, accurate, and flexible. Production is shifted from model to model in minimum time. Common chassis support different body styles, or a number of unique platforms inexpensively created to optimize each distinct vehicle. Component sets are commonized even as vehicles become more individualized. Smaller powertrains handle larger loads without affecting performance. Fuel economy rises.
Further, directional ridges cut into the material control crash forces in a progressive manner, eliminating the need for additional attenuation structures. Even interior construction is revolutionized, with complete upper and lower halves built near the line and delivered on a just-in-time basis.
This technology is a natural for military vehicles, light trucks and SUVs. Each would be stronger and lighter than comparable conventional designs, and greatly reduce the strain on oil supplies–whether on the road or the battlefield. In times of peace, vehicle miles traveled could increase dramatically without affecting oil demand, and consumers could continue to choose vehicles based on personal need, not on government demand.
Unlike the daydream that is the PNGV project, these methods–and they are but two of what, no doubt, are many–are ready to be exploited now. The capacity exists to produce them without one shovel of new dirt being turned, or incurring unreasonable expenditures. Small, dedicated teams–whether indigenous to the corporation or culled from external sources–could begin the process without running afoul of the entrenched systems and bureaucracy, moving the process forward.
The way exists. All that's missing is the will.