Survival of the futuristic

As consumers demand a wider choice of models and technical innovation for their money, only car manufacturers prepared to compete on variety and lower costs will survive.

The modern car, pulled this way by market demands and that way by legislation, is one of the most complex consumer items on the market. It is also one of the cheapest.

A £2,000 flat-screen TV almost makes a £8,000 family car look a bargain.But for vehicle manufacturers and suppliers, the task of satisfying these conflicting demands looks set to get much more difficult over the next few years. Indeed, for a company to remain competitive it will have to produce more variety with greater content at lower costs.

Consumers want diesel options and a choice of drivelines, plus more safety and comfort features. They want their cars to use less fuel, yet to run for longer periods between servicing. The Euro-NCAP crash test results mean they want to know how likely they are to survive an accident.

Car makers are committed to making their products more pedestrian-friendly, and to comply with quietness regulations and the recycling requirements of the End of Life Vehicle Directive.

At the same time, they reached an agreement with the EU to reduce the present fleet average of carbon dioxide emissions from 170g/km to 140g/km by 2008. This is in addition to the legislation – widely referred to as Euro IV – that requires them to halve emissions of hydrocarbons, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulates by 2005.None of these automotive technology challenges is insoluble, given time and money.

What makes them collectively so acute is the fact that volume producers are not very profitable, and many are losing money.

Mike Burns, president of GM Europe, says the downward pressure on prices across Europe has never been greater. Concerns about profitability will dictate the shape and technology of the cars we buy over the next five to 10 years as much as the market and legislation.

So what solutions does the industry have to meet these challenges? These are some of the more significant ways in which tomorrow’s car will evolve.

In the medium term, fuel cell vehicles will not be the norm. Toyota, Honda, DaimlerChrysler, Ford and GM will have them in showrooms over the next two or three years. But because the vehicle industry has investment in place to manufacture up to 60 million internal combustion engines a year globally, the change will be gradual.

There will be more hybrids – cars that combine a petrol or diesel engine with a battery pack, electric motor and generator – available by the end of the decade, though. Toyota, whose Prius was the world’s first dual-power car, says it will be producing 300,000 hybrids of various types a year by 2005. Honda, another hybrid pioneer with the Insight, is also committed to expanding availability. Some future hybrid versions may incorporate a fuel cell as one of the two power sources.

The so-called mild-hybrid is a simpler, less expensive alternative. The system involves a motor/generator connected to an engine driveshaft either directly or belt-driven. It allows the engine to shut down when the car is stationary and can provide a torque boost under acceleration. Toyota, which offers a mild-hybrid version of the Crown in the Japanese market, claims a fuel saving of 15 per cent over a conventional powertrain.

Ricardo and French component maker Valeo have undertaken a mild-hybrid research project known as i-MoGen which combines a 1.2-litre diesel, flywheel-mounted electric motor/generator and an advanced 42V electrical system. The result, says Nick Owen, technology manager at Ricardo Consulting Engineers, is the driveability of a modern 2-litre diesel and a 30 per cent improvement in consumption – and therefore CO2 reduction – over the car on which it is based. Another mild-hybrid concept, shown at the Paris Motor Show, is the Renault Ellypse.

Any switch to 42V electrics has deep cost implications. Most engineers agree it will have to be adopted – all that extra equipment creates a huge appetite for electricity – but when is another matter.

One development is certain: to meet its EU commitment to lower CO2 emissions the industry has to sell more diesels, which account for a quarter of UK registrations, and over a third in Europe. Before long that looks likely to reach 40 per cent.

The appeal of diesels was transformed by common rail injection systems (made by Bosch, Delphi, Denso and Siemens) and unit injectors (Bosch and Lucas). Common rails made more impact because they can be adapted relatively easily to existing engines. For consumers these systems spell greater refinement, performance and fuel economy. For engineers, the fantastic injection pressures – 1,600 to 1,800 bar are normal — are critical to removing exhaust particles.

Another emissions/economy approach will be what Owen calls ‘clever things with valve actuation’. BMW says its patented Valvetronic, which replaces the throttle butterfly with infinitely variable valve lift, is ‘as significant as the transition from carburettor to fuel injection’. He believes camless engines using electromagnetic valve actuators are a decade away from volume production. All will depend on when 42V is adopted.

The necessity to reduce emissions will probably result in greater use of forced induction using turbo or superchargers. The benefits of this are already established: a small-capacity engine can match the performance of a larger one, yet produce less friction and weigh less – which affects the rest of a car’s structure.

The main change in transmissions is likely to revolve around automated manuals. Some already exist, but a new generation using dual clutches will make changes smoother than today’s.

What makes these and other new vehicle technologies possible is electronics. In under two decades they have transformed car systems, and have done so reliably in hostile environments such as extremes of temperature, earthquakes and floods.Volkswagen says electronics ‘play a key role in some 90 per cent of all innovations in vehicle construction today’. These innovations gradually trickle down from expensive to everyday cars. Anti-lock brakes are now commonplace, for example. Electronic stability controls are available on models like the VW Golf and Toyota Corolla.

Intelligent air bags and hi-tech cruise controls, now on a handful of top-of-the-range models, will follow the trend into more affordable cars.

The Bosch electro-hydraulic brakes (SBC) first seen on the new Mercedes-Benz SL herald the start of a brake-by-wire era for the vehicle industry.

Next will be electromechanical systems, though probably not in series production within the next few years. That is partly because, as with steer-by-wire, current legislation requires mechanical links. It also depends on a resolution of the 42V question.

The imperative to reduce weight has a considerable impact on the choice of materials for a car’s body and structure. Despite recent inroads made by aluminium, steel will be the first choice for many years, particularly for high-volume, low-price vehicles.Steel starts by being a lot cheaper than the alternatives. Dr Jon King, director of Corus Automotive, says: ‘Aluminium will save 30 to 40 per cent in weight, but it will cost 30 to 40 per cent more.’ So the main impact of aluminium so far is in less price-sensitive cars such as the Audi A8, Honda NSX and new Jaguar XJ saloon.

Steel producers – remembering how they lost the canned drinks sector to aluminium – are fighting a rearguard action with more sophisticated grades and assembly techniques. Aluminium is used extensively in drivetrains, and increasingly in crash structures and suspension sub-assemblies. Magnesium offers even more weight saving at yet higher cost.

All these technology solutions are excellent news for consumers – but not for an impecunious automotive sector. So the next five to 10 years will be a Darwinian scenario in which the only survivors will be vehicle makers and suppliers with the deepest financial, managerial and technical reserves.