BMWs Influence, Aluminum Trucks, and Autonomous Cars

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South Carolina has become a hub for automotive technology and manufacturing, with the largest influence comingSCAS Logo from BMW’s decision to locate their manufacturing plant in Spartanburg back in 1994.

Fast forward to 2014 in the upstate: BMW manufactures all of their SUVs, Michelin operates their North American Headquarters plus three tire manufacturing plants, and CU-ICAR (Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research) provides cutting edge research and the nation’s only graduate Department for Automotive Research. In an effort to support and grow our state’s automotive sector, Greenville, SC is host to a new regional automotive summit for education and networking that has grown tremendously in the three years since inception.

Sealevel is very supportive in our community, with our industrial computers and I/O used in a variety of ways in the transportation vertical including in test fixtures, R&D instrumentation, and system diagnostics. So it made sense that we participate as a summit sponsor last week. Having grown up in the 70s, I love cars (my first car was a 1967 Chevelle) so this conference was definitely for me.

There were great speakers sharing an amazing amount of information at the summit. Here are a few personal highlights and thoughts:

One of the biggest challenges confronting automotive companies is the need to comply with federal EPA regulations for Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE). The requirements for improving fuel economy are very aggressive and the penalties for non-compliance are severe, so this is a serious issue for all auto manufacturers.

The primary targets for performance improvements to benefit fuel economy are the powertrain and materials used in vehicles. Small but powerful 1.4L turbo engines are being announced that bring reasonable horsepower along with fuel economy, while aluminum and carbon fiber materials are already increasingly used in today’s vehicles to reduce weight compared to traditional steel construction. In fact, you may have seen the recent announcement by Ford that 2015 F-150 pickups will be made largely with aluminum body parts. Interestingly, electric vehicles, while under development by all major manufacturers, don’t play a huge part in the equation since their adoption rate is so small, currently making up only about 4% of the North American market.

The other huge area of change in automotive design is electronics. The average automobile today contains 60 microprocessors and more than 10 million lines of code! Those numbers will only increase as cars become more connected to people, other cars, and the surrounding environment. Driver alert systems, adaptive brakes and headlights are currently found on many luxury brands, but are sure to work their way into less expensive models as the technology matures.

I’m sure you’ve heard recently about future cars that can drive themselves. You would simply get in and direct the car to ‘take me to work,’ or wherever it is you want to go. According to the experts at the auto summit, this technology actually exists today. Autonomous cars can sense the environment around them and communicate with other connected “smart cars” to keep a safe distance and even potentially increase the flow of traffic by keeping speeds relatively constant. But don’t look for fully autonomous cars anytime in the near future. The problem is not with the cars themselves, but rather all the other cars on the road, like my old 1967 Chevelle, and the human drivers that have proven to not be as well behaved.

So, there are definitely massive changes occurring in automotive technology. Let me know what you think will be the most compelling improvements in tomorrow’s cars.