Special Coverage

2010 Convergence

DETROIT – U.S. auto makers want more durable, scalable electronics from their suppliers and see electric-vehicle infrastructure and driver-assistance technologies as major growth opportunities for parts makers, Detroit Three executives and key overseas-based manufacturers say.

Micky Bly, who heads global electrical systems for hybrids, electric vehicles and batteries at General Motors Co., rants against the current durability of control modules in his sphere.

“That element of the business is still way behind in understanding the automotive-grade requirements in their electronics and sensing systems, whether it is contactors, high-voltage (or) low-voltage sensing systems…there is a lot to grow there,” he says.

As a pioneer in the EV push with the upcoming Chevy Volt, GM has a lot at stake. To reduce consumer fears over such revolutionary technology, the auto maker has taken the potentially costly step of standing behind the Volt’s electric-propulsion system for eight years or 100,000 miles (160,930 km).

“We also need investment and an understanding for the traditional suppliers who are trying to go into that space (that) their parts will be used significantly different,” Bly says during an OEM panel discussion at SAE Convergence 2010 here.

Unlike most of today’s vehicles, which demand an average of three hours of performance per day from their electrical systems, EVs such as the Volt or the upcoming Nissan Leaf could be running 24 hours between on-road use and overnight recharging.

“It’s a fundamental shift in (durability) requirements that I don’t think has been recognized yet,” Bly says.

At the same time, most vehicles on the world’s roadways 10 years from now will predominately rely on an internal-combustion engine, adds Marc Duval-Destin, director-research and advanced engineering at PSA Peugeot Citroen.

Suppliers should work to bring down the cost of integrating the thermal engine with electrification, he says. “Reducing the cost of these mild-hybrid systems, or all things linked to electrical consumption, is a real challenge. That is an area where investments are clearly needed.”

Tailor investments to your customer, too, advises Jim Buczkowski, director-electrical and electronics-systems engineering at Ford Motor Co.

“One of the big differentiators we all have is in the area of (human-machine interface), and developing a DNA specific to our company,” he says. “And tools to help us develop that HMI very quickly, allowing us to add features very effectively and getting the tools and processes to support that is very important to us.”

Tier 2 semiconductor suppliers must invest in equipment and facilities to increase the availability of their product and put an end to the current allocation-based supply stream, says Alan Amici, head of electrical and electronic engineering at Chrysler Group LLC.

“It is an unsustainable business model for us right now,” he says.

Yoshio Suzuki, senior chief engineer at Honda Research & Development Co. Ltd., simply wants more systems-based engineering solutions as propulsion system electrify. “We are just looking for systems engineering,” he says. “At this moment, it is quite a hurdle for us.”

EV infrastructure represents another major opportunity for suppliers, the auto makers say.

In the U.S., for example, the Obama Admin. seeks 1 million EVs on the nation’s highways by 2015, but current battery technologies impose range limitations. And without wide availability of charging stations, consumer acceptance will remain limited.

“Electric vehicles are going to require much more connectivity to the environment, to the power grid and so on,” Ford’s Buczkowski says. “There is a lot of work that needs to be done there to deliver electric vehicles on a mass basis.”

Adds Amici: “The question every EV owner will have is, ‘Do I have enough energy to make this round trip?’ So the infrastructure is going to be important. It’s a big question we need to solve.”

Asked specifically where the next technological boom might reside, such as semiconductors, software development, systems architecture, networking sensors, HMI, or mechatronics, the executives makers reply “all of the above.”

“At Chrysler, the area of driver assistance is an area of high growth,” Amici says, citing current advances such as radar, blind-spot detection and adaptive cruise control. “But there is much more room to grow in that space, in terms of using existing platforms such as our electronic stability control and expanding the feature there.

“Or using other new technologies, such as cameras, to augment the existing systems,” he adds. “The goal of that is to create a safer environment for the driver, so that’s an area of high growth at Chrysler.”