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Auto engineers push the envelope

Auto engineers push the envelope

As Vice President of Product Development for Visteon Corp., John Kill oversees the design and development of high-quality, environmentally friendly products that help to improve automobile safety. He began his career with Ford in 1971, holding various engineering and managerial positions in the company's Powertrain and Diversified Products Operations. In 1993, Kill became chief engineer of Ford's Climate Control Division, which evolved into Visteon. He assumed his current position in January 2001. Kill holds a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Dayton and an MBA from Wayne State University.

New technology, regulations, safety and environmental issues, cost constraints-all play a role in the development of today's automobiles. Visteon's John Kill looks at some of the past accomplishments and major challenges that lie ahead for engineers.

Design News: What do you think has been the most significant development in automotive technology in the last decade?

Kill: Without a doubt, the answer is electronics. What is so interesting is that in the mid-1970s someone did a study about future technologies for the automobile and just about every development that was envisioned at the time-many of them electronics-based-has made its way into the automobile. Voice-activated control was about the only exception! Features like traction control, electronic braking, and on-board navigation capabilities which were all new just a few years ago are commonplace today. In fact, the whole area of electronics is expected to continue to grow in the future with innovations such as electromechanical valve actuation, active suspensions, and by-wire technologies.

Q: When do you expect to see by-wire technologies go into production, and what are the challenges that must be overcome?

A: We have very active programs in those areas today. I think the industry is going to see by-wire systems beginning to phase in somewhere between 2005 and 2010. In order to develop the confidence that these systems are as reliable as existing technologies, we can expect to see redundant systems appear first before making a full transition into by-wire technologies.

Q: With so many new features in the automobile today, isn't there competition for space?

A: Space limitations are definitely a challenge for engineers, and we're always seeking ways to reduce real estate requirements. One technology that we have been very aggressively pursuing in the area of electronics is something called super integration technology, which involves taking a 5-inch diameter bundle of wires and reducing it down to a flat, mylar wire populated with microprocessors and electronics.

Q: Does regulation stifle creativity?

A: Quite the opposite-I think consumer trends lead auto engineers to be creative. If you look at the area of fuel economy, for example, European market forces fostered the development of a diesel engine and powertrain with acceptable emission and noise levels. That work probably would not have been done had the marketplace not been driving engineers to stretch to meet those goals.

Q: How important is shortening the design cycle?

A: The number one reason that we work to reduce lead times is that our customers expect us to. They see the cycle times in consumer electronics-which are about one half to one third that of the auto industry-and they would like to see an idea for a technology in a vehicle in a relatively short timeframe. And we're getting better all the time. Three years ago, it took us close to 24 months to develop and get the first rear seat entertainment system to market. Today, we can deliver feature upgrades, such as rear seat DVD entertainment, in as little as 12 months.

Q: What do you think will be the most significant development in the next decade?

A: While we don't have a crystal ball, we do have consumer and customer research data that lead us to believe that higher voltage systems, alternate fuels, and more electronics are the developments of the future. And electronic advancements for the future are not limited to consumer electronics. We're talking about engine, powertrain, and vehicle electronic controls as well. These technologies need to be available within an electrical architecture that is easy to use and easy to upgrade.

Meeting the expectations of our customers and consumers presents many challenges, the most significant being the need for industry standards for higher voltage systems and telematics. The establishment of standards will result in the ability to cost-effectively support accelerated development in many configurations.

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