U.S. auto industry falling behind?

Sep 26, 2008

Leading electrical engineering experts and organizations believe the U.S. auto industry is behind foreign automakers in terms of technological advancements. But there is still hope.

Fact or fiction: at 100,000 miles, some electrical and electronics systems on U.S. manufactured vehicles stop working inexplicably.

The answer? Fact and fiction.


“Because in some cases common electrical switches or connectors used in automobiles made by U.S. companies fail after 100,000 miles due to a lack of incremental improvements made year to year, while mechanical drive trains are very reliable,” explained Dr. Jim Gover, professor of Electrical Engineering at Kettering University in Flint, Mich., and vice president, Automotive, of the Board of Governors of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering (IEEE, http://ieee.org) Vehicle Technology Society (VTS). The IEEE is the world’s leading professional association for the advancement of electrical and electronics science and technology, and boasts more than 350,000 members worldwide. 

According to Gover, U.S. automakers “need to treat electrical engineering and its application in their vehicles more scientifically rather than at the technology level. If car companies do this, they could ultimately increase vehicle quality, which would increase consumer confidence in their offerings, as well as establish the perspective that U.S. built automobiles are better engineered,” he added.

This, then, leads one to ask the following question: mechanical drive trains produced by U.S. car companies often last more than 250,000 miles at a time when vehicles are becoming more electrically intensified—so why can’t companies manufacture and perfect electrical components and systems to offer this same level of quality?

There are a myriad of reasons why. Many U.S.car companies engage in a process called horizontal integration during the engineering and production of vehicles. This process requires automakers to purchase components and systems used in their products from other companies, which means automakers must sign confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements. 

If one of those systems fails or operates incorrectly, the automaker has a difficult, if not impossible, time bringing in personnel outside the company or supplier to examine the failure. Simply put, these agreements prevent automakers and other companies competing with suppliers from infringing on patents or developing products that are basically identical copies.

“More than 25 percent of the cost to produce a single car is the electronics and electrical systems,” Gover said.  “And because of the possibility of failure in these systems after 100,000 miles or more, people are switching to car companies that have a history of mastering these electronic systems,” he added.

But U.S.car companies can make a positive change to this trend. Although the U.S.auto sector generally treats electrical engineering at the electronics technology, black box level, organizations like the Instituteof Electricaland Electronics Engineers Vehicle Technology Society (VTS) sponsor conferences that bring more scientific approaches to vehicle electrical and electronics engineering. IEEE-VTS conferences include comprehensive, in-depth papers that address the scientific challenges of electrical and electronics engineering in automotive applications, and provide scientifically sound courses to members. 

In the fall of 2009, the IEEE Vehicle Technology Society will co-sponsor the Vehicle Power and Propulsion Conference in Dearborn, Mich. The majority of papers will focus on scientific studies of hybrid and plug hybrid technology.

As experts and organizations such as the IEEE debate the question of whether or not the U.S. auto industry is falling behind other countries in terms of technological advancements, there are ways the auto industry in the states can better compete. 

Car companies like Toyota employ a process called vertically integrated manufacturing, which is a type of management control that unites research, development, engineering and manufacturing processes through one common owner. If one of the components on the vehicle runs into problems, engineers can examine them without the worry of non-disclosure agreements, since the automaker owns the entire vehicle.

This vertically integrated manufacturing process has also helped Toyotaachieve a high degree of success. The company is first in product satisfaction among consumers and the Prius hybrid is considered the standard in hybrid vehicles.  In addition,Toyota also develops its own batteries, power semiconductors and other components without issues related to nondisclosure.

“When institutions and organizations such as the IEEE teach courses on hybrid automotive applications, they use the technology featured on the Prius, since it’s easy to study and the company is willing to allow people to examine it in depth,” Gover said. “In a way,Toyotareceives free marketing through academic examination of the hybrid power train and power electronics,” he added.

Because of their mechanical engineering histories, societies such as the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and Society of Automotive Engineers examine hybrids in depth scientifically at the mechanical engineering level; however, these societies often treat electrical and electronics engineering at the “how” level. 

But the IEEE goes deeper into its study of hybrids through the use of academic conferences that bring together scholars from around the world to discuss the latest trends in this emerging form of automotive power based on a total systems engineering approach that takes into consideration mechanical, electrical and electronic power systems as one highly integrated system controlled by electronics.

Dr. Stan Klein, managing principal of Open Secure Energy Control Systems, LLC, inSilver Spring,MD., and a member of the IEEE Energy Policy Committee, believes that the standardization of electrical interfaces would also help domestic car companies better compete with their foreign counter parts.

“There would be significant advantages to developing standard interfaces for the electrical, electronics and software components in the cars, which would enable incremental improvements and provide the flexibility to accommodate important advances,” he said.

In addition, Kettering faculty and students study hybrids, as well as hybrid fuel cell-powered vehicles, based on this systems engineering approach by offering electrical and computer engineering courses focused on automotive electronics as part of the total hybrid system. Using state-of-the-art laboratories funded through donations and resources from companies throughout the world, students receive important experience that translates to their professional jobs immediately.

Vertically integrated engineering and manufacturing, which relies on a systems engineering approach, also helps produce modest improvements from each model year, since it’s designed to help with incremental improvements. While some critics view these improvements as small, over time they do add up to better, more efficient vehicles that encounter less and less problems.  

With horizontal integrated manufacturing and the use of outsourcing to produce certain components, improvements are often larger in scale but take longer to develop, Gover explained. 

Overall, Gover does seeU.S.car companies trying to make strides in the plug-in hybrid field. He points to the Chevrolet Volt as a good example of this progress. “The Volt was a show stopper at the lastDetroitauto show,” he said, adding that for the vehicle to gain even more acceptance when marketing for the car starts in 2010, the battery life “needs to be developed further, which is exactly what GM is attempting to do now. They are researching newer ways to extend battery life as a means of making the vehicle more practical to consumers.”

For questions regarding this story, contact Dr. Jim Gover at jgover@kettering.edu.

Written by Gary J. Erwin