We know that automotive engineers lead sheltered lives. They toil away in dimly-lit rooms, rarely seeing daylight, testing this and tweaking that. Some readily admit they lead the life of a mushroom, kept in the dark and fed a bunch of — well, bad ideas from the design department.

Still, they're smart, so we know they must read the papers (and we hope they read Ward's), and we figured they not only know a lot about “e-engineering” but that they have formed definite opinions about it. After all, our March 2000 cover story was devoted to it.

We figured that if we let automotive engineers chew on that story for a year, that they'd have plenty to say about the topic by now. Plus, they would learn a lot about Covisint, which someday wants to become the auto industry's private Internet exchange, and what it means to auto engineers.

Oh, how wrong we can be. Good thing we make our money forecasting vehicle production rates rather than engineering trends.

We crafted the 23rd Annual Engineering Survey around what we thought was several probing questions related to e-engineering, and we discovered that the whole topic is still relatively foreign for the 557 engineers we polled.

First, a definition of e-engineering, provided by Editor Drew Winter in last year's cover piece: “With just a computer, modem and cell phone, someone can work in isolation, yet be completely connected to headquarters, co-workers, e-mail and work-related information. With these tools you'll never be an island, so to speak, even if you're living on one.”

Now, when it sounds that good, wouldn't the engineers be busting down the boss's door to negotiate just such a deal? Maybe it's too good to be true.

This new world also could allow an engineer to sketch a product and use an e-commerce Web site (presumably Covisint) to find the supplier that can make the necessary components at the best price. And it would allow an engineer to “collaborate” electronically with other engineers far away on product designs using e-mail and Internet-enabled software.

So we asked if e-engineering will dramatically change the job of the automotive engineer, and respondents were pretty evenly divided among those who agreed, disagreed and were not sure. Perhaps e-engineering is a great idea whose time — is nowhere near at hand.

A slight majority said that e-engineering wouldn't dramatically change their jobs. Perhaps that's because with all the money tied up in office space, parking, furniture, the infrastructure to support it — and the boss's need to control — the respondents realized that they can e-engineer until their computers short circuit, but they'll be doing it from their desks.

About 90% of respondents say they are not involved in any collaborative engineering projects. Those few engineers who have, however, say the experience has been positive.

We also asked how Covisint, with its global aspirations, will affect Joe, “the average engineer.” And most survey respondents didn't know. Can you blame them? Covisint is a dot.com startup (still without a home or CEO, as of mid-February), and given dot-comdom's recent financial flops, its high-flying aspirations should be tempered with a little caution.

Among the rest of the respondents, 45% of OEM respondents and 30% of supplier respondents say Covisint will not affect how they do their jobs as engineers.

More than 30% of respondents couldn't even guess, when asked, how much time Covisint could shave off product development cycles. Among the rest, 31% say up to six months and 24% say they see no time savings at all.

And most of them didn't think that Covisint would have any impact on their company's commitment to research and development.

Covisint is a one-year-old online auto parts and information exchange that was founded by General Motors Corp., DaimlerChrysler AG and Ford Motor Co. Other partners include Renault SA, Nissan Motor Co. Ltd., Oracle and Commerce One.

Covisint describes itself on its Website as “a marketplace where the business partners can meet and exchange information globally, (in) real time in an open and secure environment without the need for redundant databases and multiple systems…. Covisint is bringing together global trading partners in an open collaborative environment that exponentially streamlines new and emerging business processes.”

Responding engineers may have a foggy outlook for Covisint, but they have widely embraced the Internet in general. The vast majority of surveyed engineers say they have Internet access at their work stations and use it daily or weekly.

What do they use it for? Mostly e-mail and research, but it's interesting to note that more respondents use the Internet, while at work, for entertainment than for collaborative engineering — although both groups are admittedly minuscule.

With all this high-tech gadgetry that is supposedly just around the corner, there's an image of rampant paperless design and engineering in the auto industry. It's not happening at the rate some people would like to think. Almost 42% of our respondents report using blueprints and drawings from 26% to 100% of the time in their work. Less than 20% say none of their engineering work involves 2-dimensional drawings and blue prints.

So what's going on out there?

While the industry talks about e-engineering, collaborative engineering and remote engineering as if it's all just around the corner, our survey suggests that engineers are doing their jobs pretty much the same way they always have with incremental improvements provided by the software of their computers.

The notion of hundreds of engineers collaborating online, or working from their homes or designing vehicles on laptop computers still seems very far away.

OEM engineer comments

“3D data is a must!”
“A change to the metric system 100% would be helpful.
CAD systems are wonderful. Beat the pants off paper stuff.”
“This is a joke, right?”
“But it would be better if everyone knew how to use it!”
“But, it would be more fun!”
“Can't stop progress. I use Unigraphics often and it's a great tool. However, in some cases, nothing says it like a good ol' layout with a body grid!”
“Reinvent the wheel?”

Supplier engineer comments

“Do you want to drive a 1972 Vega?”
“I doubt that designs, as complicated as they are now, could be achieved with slide rules and blueprints.”
“It would slow us down, but we would make fewer unnecessary changes.”
“My work on high frequency electronics would not be possible without computer tools.”
“The 707, Atomic Sub, and much of the first moon shot were designed using the latter. We do many things because we can, not because of real need.”
“We would need to hire twice the work force!”