Oracle at Delphi

The vice-chairman of US vehicle components maker Delphi talks about future technologies that will enhance the safety and rideability of the car. David Fowler talked to him at the Frankfurt Motor Show.

Amid the ranks of vehicles on display at the Frankfurt Motor show, Delphi technology supremo Don Runkle is more concerned with what happens beneath the gleaming bodywork.

The name of Delphi – the world’s biggest automotive component maker since being spun off from its former parent General Motors four years ago – would go unrecognised by most car buyers. But the big manufacturers are increasingly happy to devolve responsibility for key areas of technical development to Delphi and its fellow automotive systems specialists, giving the company a major role in shaping the vehicles of the future. With a technical staff of 16,000 worldwide, the firm spends about $1.7bn (£1bn) annually on R&D.

If all that puts vice-chairman and chief technology officer Runkle in the hot seat, it also gives him a unique view of the heights of automotive technology and developments in the pipeline. Runkle explained that there are three broad areas on which Delphi is currently focusing most of its engineering efforts: integrated safety systems, communications and a three-pronged category he calls ‘efficiency, energy and environment’.

According to Runkle, safety is now one of the biggest selling points for car makers. Delphi has engineers working in two distinct areas: accident avoidance and accident mitigation (protecting a car’s occupants, and increasingly pedestrians too, if an accident does happen). Two vision systems, the latest results of both these strands of research, were on show in Frankfurt.

Delphi’s lane departure warning system uses a miniature camera to track lane markings and give a warning if the car appears to be leaving the lane unexpectedly.The second generation of the company’s occupant sensing system – soon to be a requirement in the US following accidents in which passengers have been injured by airbags – adds a vision system to its existing seat sensor, which measures the passenger’s weight.

‘Our vision system can tell if there’s a bag of groceries on the seat, or a child, and if they’re out of position,’ said Runkle. ‘We’re doing a lot of work on the power levels for airbag deployment to try to match the seriousness of the accident and the weight of the occupant.’ With the price and size of cameras reducing, Runkle believes these systems could appear on production cars within five years.

Delphi is also bringing Quadrasteer to Europe. This is a rear-wheel steering system originally introduced in the US to make long vehicles more manoeuvrable. With the addition of a yaw sensor to detect skids and, when integrated with anti-lock braking, it is being positioned as a powerful dynamic chassis stability tool.

Runkle said this was an example of the ever-increasing role of computer technology in all aspects of vehicles’ systems. ‘In the 1980s we put powerful computers on engines to solve emissions. In the 1990s and in this decade we’re really putting powerful computers on chassis to give you good ride and handling as well as accident avoidance capability. The chassis arena is really exploding in terms of technology, sophisticated algorithms and cross-system integration.’

Crash safety has traditionally been thought of as ‘active’ (for example, avoidance systems) and ‘passive’ (airbags and so on which are triggered when a crash happens). But according to Runkle, there is growing interest in integrated safety systems that allow the two to work together. The idea is to take information from the car’s active sensors and vision systems, and if they decide an accident is unavoidable use the data to pre-warn the mitigation systems.

Runkle said: ‘With our radar-based active cruise control we have the information on-board as to whether an accident’s going to occur or not. So you can begin to take up the backlash in the brakes, pull down on the seat belts and prepare for this. Half a second’s warning is a lot of time in a pre-crash to improve the situation.’

On a happier note, Delphi’s second major technology development strand, communications and entertainment, aims to offer drivers and passengers a variety of new ways to make car journeys easier and more enjoyable.

It also demonstrates the challenge faced by Delphi and others in dealing with the divergent tastes of two massive markets. ‘Receiving TV in high-quality analogue or digital format in the vehicle is creating a lot of interest in Europe,’ said Runkle. ‘That’s not a demand yet in the US, but we’ve gone to the head of the pack on satellite radio.’ Delphi has sold around 300,000 units of its aftermarket SkyFi satellite radio receiver, which allows over 100 stations to be received for one subscription payment and is removable from the dash to be used outside the car.

‘Once you get satellite radio you’re addicted to it,’ claimed Runkle. In Europe, to allow for the gradual introduction of digital TV, Delphi’s hybrid reception system is capable of switching seamlessly from digital to analogue signals as the car moves from one area to another. ‘That’s a fairly tricky technical challenge,’ said Runkle.Delphi is also expecting a surge in demand for rear-seat entertainment, and is developing systems to meet it. Currently the exclusive province of luxury cars, they will soon be de rigueur in more mainstream markets. ‘There’s nothing like it for kids – they can play games, watch DVDs and in Europe dial into TV,’ said Runkle. Delphi has already launched an aftermarket product, but expects car makers to be interested in original equipment contracts soon.

Inevitably wireless networking technology looms large in Delphi’s ambitions. Claiming the company was the first to demonstrate Wi-Fi in a car, Runkle is clearly enamoured of its potential. Delphi is also working with in-vehicle systems based on Bluetooth, the short-range radio networking technology.

Runkle admitted he doesn’t know which will end up dominating, and Delphi will support both. ‘I think both have their place. I’ve got Wi-Fi at home and I love the high-speed nature of it. It is more for going to the internet, while Bluetooth is more for communication between devices, integrating your phone or PDA in to the car.’Delphi’s third key investment area – energy efficiency and environmental systems – demonstrates the high-stakes technology decisions Runkle and his colleagues must take.

At Frankfurt the company unveiled its third-generation common-rail diesel injection system, and surprised some observers by sticking with solenoid technology , as in existing systems, for operating the injectors. Competitors such as Bosch and Siemens are going over to more expensive piezoelectric units for their next-generation diesel injectors, believing that solenoid-operated units cannot be made precise enough to achieve the millisecond response times needed to meet more stringent future emission requirements.

Delphi, however, insisted its latest system will meet forthcoming European emissions regulations at lower cost. ‘Our solenoid system is comparable with Bosch and Siemens’ piezos from the performance standpoint, but we have the advantage of solenoid levels of cost,’ said Runkle.

Delphi also revealed its own Piezotec system designed for more challenging applications such as heavy and more powerful vehicles. Runkle claimed this type of development has helped Delphi meet what was seen as a potentially insurmountable challenge when it was spun off from GM: freeing the company from total reliance on its former parent.

‘This year we’ll have close to $11bn (£6.9bn) of non-GM revenue, which makes just the non-GM part of Delphi probably the fifth-largest supplier in the world,’ said Runkle.

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