Engineer Mike Hichme (left) and designer Stuart Norris (right): GM's design and engineering teams colocated in an effort to understand the customer's needs and choose the right technologies to support those needs.
Interesting to see the development work GM committed to even as the entire U.S. auto industry was sinking. One note about their development work. It still seems to take a long time from concept to product in Detroit. Since a lot of this is electronics, and a lot of the system is culled from existing technology, I would think the turnaround wouldn't have to take five years.
Some day, Rob, I'm sure that the auto industry will figure out a way to cut down the development time. Seems to me I attended a conference in 2001 that was dedicated to the idea of the 12-month car. I don't know whatever happened to that goal.
Wow, I didn't know they were even considering a speed-up in the design process. It would probably give a boost to the auto industry. Part of what has made the electronics industry so hot is the rapidity of new product introduction. I know an automobile is more complicated, but I'm not sure an car's electronics are that much more complicated.
I find it ironic that the factory floor has networking and communications standards to expedite manufacturing and inter operability of robotic machines on the assembly line, but the cockpits of automobiles do not! Every auto maker seems to have their own communications bus designs making it much more difficult for owners to upgrade their automotive electronics with after market products. Swap out the stock radio in late model cars and a bunch of "unrelated" dashboard features will no longer function. For example, alarm chimes and even directional signal clickers which utilize audio synthesizers in the radio's audio system will cease to function.
After market manufacturers have to include a bunch of personality interface modules for each make and model car to give their car stereos universality. All of this raises the cost to consumers, reduces competition, reduces variety and increases the complexity of mobile electronics both for the OEM's and after market.
What ever happened to standards in the consumer realm? I suppose one could argue they stymie innovation. But their lack can also stymie innovation.
Great insight into the back story behind the CUE, Chuck. I thought the whole process of observing customers "unboxing" their vehicles and learning how to work through all the bells and whistles was enlightening and novel on GM's part. Perhaps that close attention to the voice of the customer and requirements will actually translate into hitting on an in-car entertainment system design that people can actually use effortlessly.
It's great to get inside the design process, and also to see the different end result in GM's case as compared to BMW. The latter has been criticized for making the user experience far too complex, with new drivers having to be trained in some cases before taking control of some of the higher-end Beemers. With Cadillac, another interesting angle is how there's some reinvention of the brand involved here. In other words, the "luxury" experience pertains in part to telematics, and integration of the user's devices (smartphones) into the driving experience.
Alex: The "luxury experience" was a bit more difficult to acheive here than it might be in other companies, largely because many of the luxury buyers in Cadillac's consumer space aren't big buyers of electronic gadgets. Cadillac knew, however, that they would need to appeal to a younger up-and-coming crowd, as well as the existing customer base, when they engineered CUE.
That's an excellent point, Chuck. Although Cadillac has made strides over the years appealing to a younger crowd (particularly with its SUVs), it's still pretty easy to equate the brand with mostly older snow birds, most of which wouldn't know a Bluetooth connection from an iPod dock. It makes total sense that Cadillac is putting the spotlight on telematics to attract a younger audience, while at the same time, making sure what it is offering in terms of infotainment is accessible to its bread and butter customers.
You raise a good point, Ann. If, as you suggest, the technology-inventing generation is getting old enough to buy luxury cars, than that should be good news for the rest of us who can't afford high-end vehicles. Luxury cars are a great place for technology to start out, because it gives the automakers a chance to build up economies of scale before they offer the technology to entry-level drivers.
Chuck, the north end of the technology-inventing generation turned 60 recently, so although it's a small group at that end, the shift has already happened. I wonder iwhether they will want to buy luxury vehicles at all. Many of my contemporaries are not at all interested. I'm sure not.
I agree, many of us at the north end are not interested in luxury vehicles in the older sense of those cars. But I see a lot of people my age (boomer) have shifted to SUVs over the past decade or so. SUVs seem to have become the luxury vehilces of the boomers. In weight, size and gas consumption, they exceed the luxurty vehiles of the WWII generation.
Rob, I'm right up there at that north end along with you. So far, none of my friends have shifted to SUVs, which makes me happy, since they are such gas guzzlers. If SUVs have become the new luxury vehicles for seniors, then they're not much different from the ones our parents drove, except for some obvious differences in appearance. It's too bad that luxury vehicles, where innovation often is implemented, as Chuck points out, have to be so consistently unsustainable in terms of fuel consumption.
Yes, Ann, it's ironic that the outdoorsy vehicles that seemed so much cooler than our parents' luxury cars have become luxury cars themselves. And with little time spent doing outdoorsy activities. Now the argument I hear for SUVs is that in a collision the driver and passengers are much safer in an SUV.
When it comes down to it, the SUV is just another city-based luxury car that guzzles gas.
I agree, Rob, that SUVs aren't always what they appear to be. And the reason that they are safer is simply that they are usually based on truck bodies, which makes them weigh more, which is partly why their mileage is so low, etc. etc.
If I want a truck--which I do--I'll buy a truck, not one of those.
I think there's a solution to the unsustainable luxury car dilemma that you mention, Ann. In earlier stories, I have mentioned that the Volt is based on a new definition of luxury. I can buy a Chevy Cruze for under $20,000 or buy a Volt for $40,000. In some respects they are the same car, same size, same foundation. The Cruze gets 42 mpg; the Volt gets about 45 mpg on gasoline and 90+ mpge using electricity. The Volt also has a few more luxuries inside. I really do believe that most of the of the buyers of the Volt, Leaf and other EVs and hybrids are wealthier consumers with a new definition of luxury. If they were buying out of a sense of pragmatism, they'd go for vehicles like the Cruze.
Chuck, that's a really interesting shift in what's defined as luxury. Thanks for pointing that out. OTOH, I hope that doesn't mean that EVs and hybrids are being aimed at the upper end of consumers, since that will most likely delay acceptance and the higher volumes needed to make them mainstream. During the energy crisis in the mid-70s, people started buying smaller Japanese cars in huge numbers because they both cost less and had better mileage than Detroit. It was a win-win.
Ann, I'm afraid that until now, most hybrids and electric cars have been aimed at upper-end consumers. That's starting to change no, though, with last week's introduction of the $19,000 Prius c. Automakers are also turning to plug-in hybrids because they can market them at the mid-level of the market by reducing the size of the battery and, therefore, reducing the cost.
Thanks for reporting on that lower-priced Prius and the down-sized pricing of plug-in hybrids. They should go a long way toward getting volumes up by appealing to more consumers, especially in these tough economic times.
Next we want to hear how much Toyota is going to charge for its plug-in vehicle, the Prius PHV. If that comes in at a reasonable price -- say, $28K -- we'll really see electrification appealing to more consumers. We should know soon.
Ann: We should know by second quarter of this year. Predictions seem to vary from $28K to $32K, but when I interviewed Toyota engineers over the summer, they described the sweet spot as $26K. I doubt they can come in that low, but they do have the advantage of a small-ish battery on this (one-third the size of the Volt battery), so they should be able to keep costs down.
A final note on the Prius PHV, Ann. To me, it seems like the most logical form of electrification in vhicles today. By minimizing the size of the battery, Toyota will hopefully keep the costs down. If you're a person who drives less than 13 miles roundtrip to work, and if you recharge religiously, you can run in pure electric mode the majority of the time.
I am very familiar with the experience of user interface overload in a new car. This past April, my 2000 Ford Mustang Convertible was totaled (rear-ended while parked at the curb!) and I bought a new Prius with a Nav/Ent package. The car came with a 400+ page owner's manual - plus a second 280-page manual for the Nav/Ent system. Way too much to read sequentially. So I let myself "discover" the features, pulling out the manuals only when I got stuck. A couple of examples:
- How do I get back to the standard display on the Nav screen when I have moved the display away from the car location by accidentally touching the screen instead of an on-screen button?
- What are those icons of houses on the rear-view mirror frame?
- Where is the button to change the mode for the dome light?
Fortunately, the system is basically well-designed and does not lead you astray too often. The one thing that still bugs me has to do with the Nav system's voice recognition. Being born in Denmark, I still have an accent, especially when pronouncing proper names. I live in coastal California where many street names are of Spanish roots. And the people who programmed the voice recognition may have been Japanese. A few days ago I needed to meet someone on a street named Calle de los Amigos. That was a challenge to get into the system while driving. (Most of the touch-screen user interface buttons in the Nav system are disabled when the vehicle is moving and the passenger seat is empty.)
The process described in the article really is common sense. It is sad that it is so unusual that it can be hailed as a great innovation.
I agree with you, Radioguy, that it's sad for a common sense process to be viewed as innovative. Maybe the reson for this is that the process must be carried out very carefully, lest the engineers come back with little to show for it. The challenge is taking the feedback and converting it to design ideas and technologies and, unfortunately, that's a tricky process. Executives take a dim view view of it when such efforts don't work and engineers are too often hesitant to suggest a costly methodology that offers no guarantees.
In an earlier column, Chuck discussed the rampant proliferation of electronics in modern automobiles. We're soon going to be at a tipping point where it will no longer be a question of whether consumers (used to be known as drivers) will be able to restrain themselves from being distracted by all the on-board telematics/electronics/information systems. And that's not to even mention McDonalds, the kids watching DVDs in the back, and texting while talking while driving. The logical endpoint of this is either autonomous vehicles (leave the driving to us, literally speaking) or IVHS. I don't believe autonomous cars will be viable for quite a while, DARPA and Google notwithstanding. (Even if they worked reliably, there are too many liability issues.) I do believe that Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems need to be revived. A great infrastructure project -- job creation -- and a way to keep cars moving efficiently on the highway while ensuring lives are saved.
The automakers could stop proliferation of electronics in a heartbeat if they really wanted, but they sell cars through features and the features require more electronic control. Given the state of the automotive market, no one's going to volunteer to build a car with less features. They're so busy competing for a smaller pie that they end up offering capabilities that bring phones, music and Internet into the vehicle, even though they know these features are distracting to drivers.
Five years ago, optical heart rate tracking seemed like an obvious successor to the popular chest straps used by many fitness buffs, but the technology has faced myriad engineering challenges on its way to market acceptance.
Design engineers need to prepare for a future in which their electronic products will use not just one or two, but possibly many user interfaces that involve touch, vision, gestures, and even eye movements.
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