They are everywhere. Pick up any newspaper, any magazine, turn on the television or listen to National Public Radio and you will see or hear a new Internet address: "such and such dot com."
Such Uniform Resource Locators (URLs) are street addresses on the fast-developing information highway, directing an increasingly computer-literate public to arguably the broadest band of entertainment and information the world has ever offered.
From stock quotes and sports scores to the political platforms of '96 Presidential hopefuls, these strings of letters and numbers point all around the globe to host computers on the expansive Internet and the World Wide Web.
But at the same time, many seasoned Internet hackers default to that mid-'80s battle cry: Where's the Beef? In the rush to get "on" the Internet, many companies, institutions and associations have forsaken content and capability for a quick-fix, public relations tool that is less functional than the Home Shopping Network.
At the opposite extreme, some educational institutions, government associations and otherwise information-heavy entities are offering the informational equivalent of a fire hose. Volumes of electronically formatted data appear at once at your fingertips, forcing users into countless hours of browsing through poorly referenced hotlinks or grossly oversized graphics.
Whether or not the Internet follows iron-on T-shirt patches to a late-decade demise, or replaces cable television as the No. 1 excuse to sit in a chair, depends largely on society's ability to use this fledgling service. And if there is any subset of society capable of taking advantage of the information benefits of the Internet, it's engineers.
The demographics couldn't be better: they're an extremely computer-literate group who already rely heavily on their ability to access volumes of data, technical papers and reference manuals to do their job.
But while this new-age of information seems to lend itself perfectly to engineers, even this part of the working public isn't thoroughly convinced the Internet is a good thing.
In a recent survey of automotive engineers by Ward's Auto World, less than 20% of total respondents say accessing the Internet is improving their ability to do their job, and only 12% say they are happy with the quality and quantity of the auto-related information they find there.
It's not through a lack of automotive cyberspace participants. Nearly every major OEM maintains some type of web presence, and scores of suppliers are throwing up websites on a weekly basis. Typing "automobile" into a websearch utility kicks back enough responses to last a week of surfing. But once again, style takes precedence over content and utility.
Most major automakers have poured their budgets into consumer-related interfaces: access to model-line information, dealership locations and other superfluous advertising that the consumer must already have been accosted with through print or television media.
www.gm.com on the web offers an overview of GM's entire lineup, access to all of the sites put up by GM divisions, Quicktime VR (Virtual Reality) showroom walkarounds, GM trivia, information on GMAC financing and an enhanced version of the website for the latest in web-browsers. Every bit (0s and 1s) is committed to drawing the consumer into GM's cyberworld and helping them kill a few hours downloading pictures -- or simply trying to get Apple Corp.'s Quicktime VR and Macromedia's Shockwave to run on Microsoft's Windows 3.1.Corp. not only jumped on this bandwagon, it's trying to rebuild the cart Their monolith site at http://
But does it accomplish anything? Other OEMs appear to think so. http://www.toyota.com) delivers. electronic magazines (e-zines) periodically, hoping to draw in repeat users who come for the new issues, but stay to look at the cars. Saab Cars USA Inc. has users take another detour and find their own Internet side-road to Saab-related lifestyle issues (http:hwww.saabusa.com). And Motor Co. gives fairly straightforward access to model line information, corporate news and financial services, among other things (http:hwww.ford.com).Motor Corp.'s website (
For the "ideal cyber-pool" though, these sites are little more than laborious commercials designed to kill time. An engineer still does not have easy access to Gm's latest windtunnel tests on the Chevrolet Malibu, and cannot reference the material breakdown for the Vortec engine family. But not all hope is lost. The answer is out there.
Institutions and companies with far less invested in catering to the consuming public are moving, albeit dramatically slower, toward the information holy grail. Many major automotive suppliers indeed have forsaken colorful PR imagery and now offer truly useful engineering information over telephone lines -- or plan to in the very near future.
General Electric Co.'s website at http://www.ge.com (actually one of the first auto-related websites online) now offers a materials selection database and data sheets on GE Plastics' product line. The collective offering distributes more than 3,000 pages of material. And GE says that the website is seeing some 1,400 "hits" a day, far lower than the thousands boasted by consumer sites, but an indication that users may really be using the Internet for work.
Other major automotive materials suppliers also are getting on-line, such as AlliedSignal Plastics (http://asresin.com). Currently, AlliedSignal's offering holds little more than ordering information and the latest news in the plastics industry. But the company says that emergency paging and design services are on the way. ,
Suppliers are not the only ones looking to provide utility. Engineering associations slowly are gravitating to the Internet. The American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI) is ramping up its website at http:// www.steel.org to offer information on automobile-related steel applications. Greg Joseph, head of AISI's Internet task force says that right now the site still is a PR tool. But it eventually will transform into a true reference utility.
"Some of it has PR-related material. But the medium is the message. We're trying to promote steel as a high-tech material and the Internet is viewed as a high-tech medium," says Mr. Joseph. "But eventually we will have all of our publications and technical documents along with other non-technical info like meeting minutes, and miscellaneous event information online."
Mr. Joseph says the process is slow, but eventually automotive steel will develop its own separate website. He hopes that, ultimately, any reference to steel applications will be linked to the AISI site.
And the mother of all engineering associations, the Society of Automotive Engineers, reportedly is working on a website that will offer up the full library of technical papers, standards manuals, event information and more. But unlike the commercial applications, these and other more utilitarian feats are slow in coming.
Meanwhile, the web does offer other sources outside of the automobile bubble. A websearch on materials yields 24,000+ URLs -- that is 24,946 web-connected computer servers devoted to materials in one form or another. The downside: materials can range from masonry to carbon-fiber composites. So it takes a fair bit of browsing to narrow down the possibilities.
But some of those URLs include access to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's materials department (http:// tantalum.mit), or the Princeton Materials Institute (http://pmi.princeton.edu). Or perhaps someone might benefit from reaching the Materials Institute Delft Eindhoven Groningen (MIDEG) in the Netherlands (http://dutsml.tudelft.nl/mideg/info/ mideg.html).
All of the high-tech government labs are online. They have been since the Internet was developed by the government during the Cold War. It just takes some digging.
So what's in store down the line for Internet users who really want to "use" this new resource? The promise of larger bandwidths to transfer information across lines will not only bring the Internet as a whole to an acceptable speed, but allow computer applications, like CAD/CAM utilities, to function across telecommunications networks.
That means real-time cooperation, idea-sharing and product development between two engineers in different hemispheres. That means instant archive searches and the transfer of massive data sets across oceans.
In fact, it already is here. For a small group of users, ISDN lines or dedicated telecommunication networks allow data transfer, video conferencing and co-development on relatively low-impact software utilities.
C-TAD Systems Inc., based in Ann Arbor MI, offers a CAD conferencing software package that coordinates real-time multi-user sessions across the Internet (or any network) to analyze and comment on computer-generated models. The software package renders the models on each user's own processor, allowing rotations and zooms and texturing, and then transmits reference coordinates and comments across the network to all of the users in any given session.
This utility, says Brian Kuttner, President of C-TAD, gives engineers a dramatic increase in their capabilities. "The idea is to make this accessible to the engineers," says Mr. Kuttner. "In the car business, in most cases traditional engineers do not have a UNIX workstation on their desk with CAD/CAM capabilities. Instead they are running to and from meetings, going to wherever the CAD machine is located."
The price tag on ISDN lines and real-time CAD/CAM multi-user development was, at one time, high. But those prices are dropping dramatically with the increase in demand. And as prices fall, accessibility to faster, more powerful Internet connections will increase.
Engineers responding to our survey noted that this hurdle -- the state of the connection -- is a higher priority than improving the content on websites.
Perhaps the greatest irony is that these engineers are waiting on other engineers to develop the innovations over the horizon. Cable modem connections, video and audio compression and better web browsers all promise to proliferate the cyberworld into a medium unlike any other created so far. If not, we may need to make space in our closet for our 28.8 kbps Internet modem -- right next to our CB Radio and 8-track tape player.
Supplier and Automaker Internet Sites
The following is a sample of supplier-related Internet sites:
Allied Signal Plastics http://www.asresin.com AIAG http://www.alag.org BASF Corp. http://www.basf.com Corp. http://www.dana.com Delco Electronics http://www.delco.com Dow Chemical Co. http://www.dow.com Dunlop Tire Co. http://www.dunloptire.com GE Plastics http://www.ge.com Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. http://www.goodyear.com International Corp. http://dunloptire.com GE Plastics http://www.ge.com Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. http://www.goodyear.com Magna International Corp. http://magnaint.com/Magna Rockwell International Corp. http://www.rockwell.com Siemens AG http://www.siemens.com Trinova Corp. http://www.trinova. com United Technologies Automative http://www.uta.com
Automaker sites include:http//www.chrysler.com http//www.ford.com http//www.gm.com Audi http//www.audi.com BMW http//www.bmwusa.com Honda http//www.honda.com Jaguar http//www.jaguarvehicles.com Mercedes http//www.mercedesbenz.com Mitsubishi http//www.jnet.mistubishi Nissan http//www.nissanmotors.com Toyota http//www.toyota.com Saab http//www.saabusa.com Volvo http//www.volvocars.com Volkswagen http//www.vw.com