Every day it seems there are new headlines about problems plaguing US auto manufacturers. Plunging stock prices. Layoffs. Cash burn rate. Impact of high fuel prices and global climate change. This isn’t all new, of course. Much of it a replay from the past 40 years when we first experienced explosions in oil prices and financial problems in Detroit, such as a possible bankruptcy at Chrysler.
I’m a huge fan of the US auto industry. I’m one of the last people on my street who still buys American cars (Pontiac). But I’m extremely concerned. And given what’s been going on, I am surprised at the engineering priorities in Detroit. I had the privilege last week of serving as a judge for the annual Society of Plastics Engineers Automotive Innovation competition. Unlike some design competitions, this one is a very big deal, and has been around a long time. Top engineering managers (mostly from the Detroit area) show what they consider to be their most important plastic designs in new production models. Winners are announced at a huge banquet (Nov. 20 this year) and the top brass show up because of the high quality of the SPE competition. It’s truly the Oscars for automotive plastics.
I didn’t get a sense of the urgency in Detroit as I listened to this year’s presentations. It seemed like business as usual.
For starters, there were only two finalists in the environmental category. In contrast, “body interior” had five. Ford has begun an impressive campaign to replace a small percentage (5 to 12) of oil-based polyols in foams with a soy-based alternate. GM is using recycled content in an air inlet panel in the Chevy Trailblazer, diverting 445,000 pounds of plastic from landfills. Is this all the better we can do? What about some efforts to use blends of bioplastics to reduce our carbon footprint? What about game-changing efforts to reduce weight?
The bigger issue, for the immediate moment, is economic. There were several entries that reduce weight and boost performance. After all, that’s been the name of the game for plastic since its dramatic arrival as a body material in the 1954 Corvette. One of the impressive entries was an injection molded oil pan module that integrates an oil deflector and baffles, cutting cost and weight. Awesome. But this design concept from DuPont dates back at least 20 years, and it is just now debutting on production cars. Adding insult to injury, the nylon oil pan is a feature on the 2008 Daimler C Class four-cylinder diesel, not an American car.
A handful of the entries that reached the final judging stage point to where American engineering executives continue to put an inordinate amount of attention: high-end flourishes instead of economy and fuel savings. The most outrageous example is the “first integrated floor console and compressor refrigerator with performance exceeding home refrigerators by 50 percent.” I’m not making this up. It’s a $760 option on the 2009 Ford Flex, and is planned for future Ford vehicles.
Maybe I’m just getting old. I also don’t like TVs in cars or people who talk on their cell phones while they drive. There are signs of change. GM is literally staking its future on the electric Chevy Volt. I hope the engineering priorities at Ford and Chrysler are changing too. I just hope we still have the time to get it right.