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What a gas!

What a gas!

Engineers responding to this year's Design News automotive survey indicate that the development of alternative fuel vehicles is the number one problem facing Detroit today. More than a third of respondents (35.8%) placed alternative fuels technology development as the most important challenge for the industry.

Another 23% rate fuel economy as the most important challenge.

The survey also asked engineers what policy would have the most significant impact on our current energy situation. An overwhelming 74.4% indicated the development of alternative fuels as the most significant.

Alternative fuels. Why all the focus on alternative fuels and fuel efficiency now?

One reason may be that the events of the past year changed the way some engineers think about their automobiles and our dependency on foreign oil. "There is definitely interest in moving away from the hydrocarbons and using new technology," says William Hyde, advanced-research engineering manager at Automotive Research Corp (Ann Arbor, MI). Of course, Hyde, who drives an F150 Ford 4 x 4 pick-up truck, works for one of many companies working on alternative fuel technologies based on fuel cells, hydrogen, electricity, ethanol, or a combination of several fuel technologies found in hybrid vehicles.

If given the choice of driving one of the alternative fuel vehicles, Dan DeChant, engineering manager for large motors at Baldor Electric (Fort Smith, AR), would prefer a hybrid. "Other fuels at this time seem to be experimental in nature and will likely take years to push forward," says DeChant. "The public will likely resist any change that isn't transparent to them."

DeChant indicates that the events of the past year have not changed the way he feels about his BMW 325i or the US dependency on foreign oil. "Oil is oil. As long as there is money to be made, people will sell it," he says.

Best in class. In addition to the foreign relations issues surrounding hydrocarbon-based fuels, Detroit faces other overseas challenges too. Cars, trucks, and SUVs from German and Japanese manufacturers top the list of cars that Design News readers rate as best new vehicles on the market today. And when asked if they were to buy a new passenger vehicle today, 14% of design engineers selected Toyota more often than any other automotive manufacturer. Ford (13%) and Chevrolet (12%) were close behind. Honda (8%) was the fourth place automaker, followed by BMW (6%).

The Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic are the top two cars engineers selected as best new vehicles in the under $15,000 range. Toyota and Honda also took the top two spots for best passenger vehicles on the market in the $15,000 to $24,999 range. The Toyota Camry alone captured 22% of the vote. The next six highly rated cars include Honda's Accord, Nissan's Altima, Volkswagen's Jetta, and Subaru's Legacy.

Survey results also indicate that foreign cars in the $25,000 - $34,999 range are looked upon favorably. Honda, BMW, Toyota, Volvo, and Lexus produce the cars engineers rank best in this price range, although none of the cars captured more than 5% of the vote.

In the mid-luxury segment ($35,000 - $44,999), BMW (14%) and Lexus (13%) topped a third-place tie between Mercedes and Volvo (each 7%). While among those cars at the top end of the price range ($45,000 and above), the big winner was Mercedes (26%). BMW and Lexus ran neck-and-neck in second place, far behind (9%).

You are what you drive. But there's good news for U.S. automakers. When Design News asked what vehicles design engineers currently drive, U.S. manufacturers dominated the results. Ford took top honors with 16% of the vote. Chevrolet was a close second with 13% of the vote. And of the top ten vehicles driven, only 25% are foreign. So, although engineers may indicate that foreign cars are better in some ways, they overwhelmingly drive cars from U.S. manufacturers.

Pay your money, take your choice
New passenger vehicle under $15,000
Best: Honda
Worst: Kia
New passenger vehicle $15,000-$24,999
Best: Toyota
Worst: Hyundai
New passenger vehicle $25,000-$34,999
Best (4 way tie):
BMW
Honda
Volvo
Toyota
Worst: Ford
New passenger vehicle $35,000-$44,999
Best: BMW
Worst: Cadillac
New passenger vehicle $45,000 or more
Best: BMW
Worst: Cadillac
Buckle up for safety
How often do you wear a seat belt?
Always 91.6%
Sometimes 8.1%
Never 0.3%
What the numbers say: Engineers understand basic physics.
Jury's out on current hybrids and electrics
Would you consider buying a hybrid or electric vehicle today?
Yes: 49.3%
No: 50.7%
If not, why not?
1. Insufficient range 51.9%
2. Not enough power 49.5%
3. Too expensive 44.2%
4. Lack of infrastructure 42.2%
What the numbers say: Engineers not willing to consider hybrids or electrics today want comparable performance and price.
New technology must be proven
Rate features, which may be achieved through 42V architectures, in terms of importance to you. (top three listed)
1. Active suspension 13.8%
2. Windshield heating 10.9%
3. Electromechanical valve actuation 10.1%
Features seen as "not important at all" were steer-by-wire (25.6%) and brake-by-wire (20.4%).
What the numbers say: Engineers are not necessarily early adopters of technology if it is not safety-related.
Reliable and safe are like bread and butter
Rate these attributes in terms of importance in the next passenger vehicle you will purchase (top six listed as "very important", % of respondents)
1. Reliability 78.5%
2. Safety 55.5%
3. Price 44.7%
4. Warranty 41.3%
5. Inside comfort 40.5%
6. Handling 38.6%
Of items listed as "not at all important," most readers picked brand loyalty (15.3%).
What the numbers say: Engineers are getting older, preferring comfort to handling.
Electronics seen as safety key
Rate technologies in terms of their ability to make driving safer. (top five listed)
1. Crash resistant vehicle structures 54.4%
2. Antilock brakes 45.8%
3. Computer interlocks to prevent operation by drunk drivers 33.2%
4. Collision avoidance systems 32.6%
5. Controlled deployment airbags 31.7%
"No safety improvement" was seen for voice-activated controls (26.4%), navigation systems (22.7%), and adaptive cruise control (16.3%).
What the numbers say: Engineers understand energy and momentum transfer.
Segway is no way a car substitute
Will the Segway Human Transporter revolutionize transportation in urban areas?
Yes: 11%
No: 89%
Would you purchase a Segway?
Yes: 10%
No: 90%
Is the Segway a good demonstration of engineering innovation?
Yes: 81%
No: 19%
What the numbers say: Engineers see Segway as nifty technology with limited usefulness.
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