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Engineering's role evolves at today's auto companies

Engineering's role evolves at today's auto companies

F rom new tools that speed time-to-market to an increased reliance on outsourcing to a focus on reducing fuel emissions and improving safety, the role of today's automotive design engineer is an ever-changing one.

Design News: How has the process of automotive design changed in the past 25 years?

Cischke: I think one of the most significant changes has been our ability to improve the time to market for new vehicle designs. In the last two decades, the industry has slashed product development cycles from 3 or 4 years to just 24 to 28 months. Key to achieving that level of performance has been the use of CAD tools, rapid prototyping, and strategies like simultaneous engineering.

Q: How has the trend toward outsourcing impacted the engineering design process?

A: Automakers continue to control the engineering R & D for all aspects of the vehicle that we consider core competencies, such as powertrain technology, body-in-white sheet metal design, and electronics. But we recognize that some suppliers may be best at developing certain components and systems. When we and other automakers began to outsource some of these functions, there was a concern in the industry that the engineer would become a business manager-dealing with quotes and guidelines and supplier selection issues. But it's quite the contrary. Not only are engineers managing the efforts of outside suppliers, they have to understand the system requirements and how these outsourced components interface and what environment they are going to be used in.

Q: Do regulations stifle engineering creativity?

A: I think regulations can have the opposite effect. Rather than stifling creativity, the right level of regulatory action can actually force innovation and encourage creativity. For that to happen, however, it's important that regulations specify the performance required and not mandate the technology we'll use to get there. You can find a good example in the emissions side of the business. When we were testifying before Congress in the 1970s and 1980s, we didn't know how we were going to meet new emissions standards. They gave us latitude in how to solve the problem, however, rather than mandating a specific technology that may not have proved to be the best approach.

Q: Do we need regulation to spur the development and sales of alternative fuel vehicles?

A: That's an interesting topic, because you have this chicken and egg situation. People won't buy these vehicles unless they are competitively priced and the alternative fuels are as convenient to acquire as gasoline, but the price won't come down and the infrastructure won't be developed until we can mass market the vehicles. We have found two things to be helpful: One is tax incentives for people who buy these vehicles, which helps encourage the auto industry to make more vehicles. The other is credits for flexible fuel vehicles, which motivates the auto industry to support the design and development of alternative fuel vehicles. Right now, for example, we have flexible fuel credits for methanol-based vehicles. That program will expire soon, but will most likely be renewed because it encouraged the development of alternative technology.

Q : What's the most important safety advancement we can expect to see in the near future?

A: The safety side of the business is an exciting field today, with many new technologies under development. Advanced-technology airbags is one of the first new innovations we expect to make available.

Susan M. Cischkem, Senior V.P. of Regulatory Affairs and Passenger Car Operations, DaimlerChrysler, Auburn Hills, MI Susan M. Cischke received a BSME in 1976 from Oakland University (Rochester, MI) and two Masters-in engineering and business-from the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Cischke joined the former Chrysler Corp. in May 1976 as an engineer with the Chrysler Institute Program, a two-year rotational training program. Cischke assumed her current position in November 1999, taking responsibility for all regulatory affairs in North America, including vehicle safety and all environmental issues. She also oversees the work done by thousands of employees in manufacturing and product development.
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