We all know how much the auto industry is struggling today. The industry is also facing some of its toughest engineering challenges yet. The demand for highly fuel-efficient vehicles will certainly continue to increase but our hunger for speed, safety, creature comforts and an affordable price is not likely to subside.
The oil crisis of the 1970s forced a wave of innovation on automakers to produce more sensible cars. Over time, with diligence and creativity, we produced remarkably dependable, agile, safe, efficient and profitable vehicles.
This current crisis feels a lot different, though. The engineering solutions for the last crisis were better executions of things we already knew how to do — make something smaller, look for lighter material, etc. This time, people are seriously looking at entirely new fuel systems, in addition to more effective versions of traditional vehicle fuels such as gas, diesel and electrical.
We're also squeezing out every drop of efficiency and effectiveness through more computing technology with “by wire” functionality increasing with each model year. Indeed, the computing power needed to control these new systems would have filled a large room a few decades ago. The magnitude of the engineering challenge is staggering and the global community of automotive engineers is getting understandably nervous.
Recently, at the Physical Modeling Consortium meeting (an industry think tank started by Toyota and Maplesoft) held at IAV's headquarters in Berlin, senior engineers from the industry echoed this growing concern. The main question was whether the current modeling and design toolchain is flexible or smart enough to tackle the new engineering challenges. The reality is, people are still designing excellent cars with the tools they have today and it is only when you start factoring in tomorrow's engineering needs that you start seeing the limitations of the aging toolchain.
Fortunately, some very pragmatic thinking is starting to emerge. In fact, the PMC itself is a clear example of this. The meetings are bringing together competitors who are collaborating to refine engineering technique.
The bet is that these complex new techniques can mature faster with the combined talents of the auto industry. The reality is that the technical challenges are daunting even for mighty Toyota to tackle alone in a timely way.
One of the most intriguing is an emerging technique called the Conserved Quantities' approach to modeling. This is a methodology where a modeling tool forces engineers to deal with fundamental energy (and other) balances as they develop models — a framework by which we can more easily comply with the fundamental laws of physics. Unfortunately, with traditional modeling software, it is quite easy to miss some very important physically relevant factors — like heat loss in mechanical components. With the right software implementation, the CQ approach gives us a fighting chance at deploying more advanced scientific concepts in a timely manner — do a bit more math and science up front, and you may be able to overcome the analytical hurdles.
Will this be enough? Only time will tell, but the good news in all of this is that a global crisis is once again bringing out some of the best thinking we've seen in the engineering world for some time. We are certainly headed for some interesting times.