VAN BUREN TWP., MI – Stringent new corporate average fuel economy standards looming on the horizon are expected by some in the industry to spur auto makers and suppliers to turn more frequently to outside engineering firms for help in developing new vehicles and fuel-saving technologies.

To cope with increase in demand and help its customers improve the cost-to-benefit ratio of introducing new vehicle systems, Ricardo Inc., the U.S. arm of U.K.-based Ricardo plc, is touting its new Total Vehicle Fuel Economy service as a way to fast track development efforts.

“TVFE addresses and resolves the difficult challenges created when individual fuel-saving technologies can actually work against each other if fuel economy is not approached from a total-vehicle perspective,” says Ricardo President Dean Harlow.

In touring the company’s technical center here, Sandy Stojkovski, director-vehicle engineering-TVFE, outlines the tenets of the new program, which include comprehensive system-level simulations, integration of separate systems into complete packages and validation of new concepts for strengthening business-case models.

“To a large extent, the technologies to meet the demand for higher fuel economy without compromising performance and comfort that consumers demand are available to auto makers right now,” she says, adding existing powertrain technologies, when combined, can achieve 75% of the 35 mpg (6.7 L/100 km) CAFE target set for 2020.

“It’s really a question of cost and the relative commercial viability of these technologies, because consumers have not yet shown their willingness to pay for them.”

Ricardo, which calls itself the “Eco-Innovation Technology Company,” historically has been associated with powertrain development.

Past achievements include developing and producing the 7-speed dual-clutch gearbox for the 1,001-hp Bugatti Veyron supercar; assisting in massaging the ’08 Dodge Viper’s 8.4L V-10 to produce 600 hp; and tuning heavy-duty turbodiesels from JCB Excavators Ltd. for last year’s 350-mph (563-km/h) land-speed record run by the JCB DieselMax streamliner.

However, the company is no stranger to total-vehicle engineering, Stojkovski says, noting BMW AG tasked Ricardo with nearly the entire development of the then-new ’02 Mini Cooper. Ricardo also was key in outfitting the Jaguar X-Type sedan with the brand’s first diesel engine.

Overall, about one-third of Ricardo’s business currently is total-vehicle development, with additional applications including military, commercial and heavy-duty vehicles.

Looking forward, the new CAFE standards in the U.S. will require numerous new technologies to be brought to market in a short period of time, resulting in unprecedented pressure on vehicle engineers, Stojkovski says.

“We’ll certainly see more engineering outsourcing (in the future) due to the higher costs of new technologies and the desire to accelerate development with less risk (to auto makers and suppliers),” she says.

In addition, an expected shortage of qualified engineering talent in the U.S., such as those with diesel-engine and hybrid-electric-vehicle expertise, further complicates the matter and bolsters the need for third-party development.

A critical enabler of Ricardo’s TVFE program is the use of computer simulations and virtual engineering, which Stojkovski says are rated to within 98% accuracy.

Virtual analysis is to engineering as forensic science is to crime solving, she says, while noting computer experts manning the terminals will remain the most important element of successful simulation efforts.

Stojkovski remains optimistic and believes new “clean technologies will serve as a magnet for (engineering) talent.”

“Those (companies) that work towards the least cost will be at a competitive advantage to those that don’t,” she says.

msutton@wardsauto.com