Detroit--Automakers this year are on track to beat the record 16 million vehicles sold in 1986. But to hear leading car-company engineers talk, it's no time to rest on their laurels.
"The companies that will win in the future are those that move fastest in reinventing the product, based on what car buyers want," says Jay Wetzel, vice president and general manager of the General Motors technical centers. In a recent interview with Design News, Wetzel, one of the chief architects of the Saturn project, shared some of his views on where auto technology is headed.
Wetzel predicts rising demand for "crossover" vehicles -- those that combine features of sedans, vans, and sport utility vehicles. This year, GM unveiled several concept vehicles that reflect this trend:
Pontiac Aztec features a reconfigurable rear compartment (flat load floor and flip-fold removable rear bucket seats), front-wheel drive, and traction control in a sporty, youthful design.
Chevrolet Nomad looks like a cross between a station wagon and a coupe and offers V8 power, shift-by-wire transmission, independent rear suspension, retractable roof, and extended load floor.
Oldsmobile Recon, a compact, four-door hatchback design, combines the higher-ride feel of an SUV with an open-air driving experience from a two-panel power sunroof extending over both front and rear.
Wetzel also sees the continued adoption of more electronics and telecommunications features. He points to the newly-introduced 2000 Cadillac DeVille, which pioneers use of an infrared Night Vision head-up display. "With increasing population density, more drivers will want this safety feature,'' notes Wetzel. The DeVille also offers Ultrasonic Rear Parking Assist, using an array of sensors to warn drivers if the car gets too close to other cars or obstacles.
Still other electronic innovations looming ahead, says Wetzel, are voice-activated systems to control many of the car's functions, as well as auto PC systems, including Internet access. "We know that many people in areas like California are spending 90 to 180 minutes in their cars every day," he explains. "And those people are going to want to conduct business transactions in their cars, which means more and more auto-based telecommunications."
As big as GM is, don't expect the company to go it alone in pursuit of such new technologies. Wetzel notes that technical alliances between companies, such as GM's long-standing cooperation with Toyota, are a fact of life today. This year, the two auto giants announced a five-year collaboration to speed development of advanced vehicles. Among the areas for joint work:
Batteries and inductive charging systems for battery-powered electric vehicles.
Alliances with other automakers, as well as major suppliers, help meet the goal of achieving ever-faster product cycles.
Toward that goal, GM has settled on Unigraphics software as the central data base for integrating all key functions: vehicle styling, engineering design, analysis and simulation, and manufacturing, including the design of dies. Says Wetzel: "With these powerful workstation and software tools, it's a very exciting time for our engineers. They're like jet pilots at the controls of an F-16."