Gears and drive shafts have had their day in Detroit. Silicon chips and electronic systems are fast replacing many of the metal parts that were venerated by generations of automotive engineers. Microprocessors, intelligent systems, smart cars, and software--these are the keys to the future.
Metal components will always be important to the auto industry. But there will be far fewer of them as carmakers switch to electronics whenever possible to boost performance, lower weight, improve safety, speed up development cycles--and offer all kinds of new goodies, like radar-based cruise control. "I'm looking to the day when the engine drives nothing but a generator that provides power for everything else," says Linos J. Jacovides, head of electrical and electronics development at General Motors Corp.'s Engineering Center.
Over at Ford Motor Co.'s Advanced Vehicle Technology Center, managers actually talk about modeling cars after personal computers. The chassis would be like a PC cabinet, and car companies would battle to become the Microsoft Corp. of automotive programs, offering yearly software upgrades to people who don't want to buy a whole new "compubile." "I think it's going to come," says Cary A. Wilson, director of electrical and electronic engineering.
This strange new Detroit has emerged in just the past five years. "The change in culture was very painful," recalls Gregory J. Avesian, manager of solutions marketing at the Chrysler Technology Center. Chrysler Corp. used to pride itself on experts who knew everything there was to know about mechanical esoterica. Now, Chrysler relies a lot on suppliers for such expertise so its in-house engineers can focus more on electronics.
Some major mechanical components are already getting the heave-ho. Steering columns, brake linkages, and throttle cables are giving way to wires and chips. The results are steer-by-wire, brake-by-wire, and throttle-by-wire systems. "These `by-wire' controls are basic enablers that will allow advanced features on future cars," says Benjamin J. Knight, a vice-president at Honda R&D Americas Inc. in Torrance, Calif.
COMMON SENSORS. In "by-wire" systems, when a driver turns the steering wheel or stomps on the brake, the movement doesn't directly turn the wheels or apply the brakes as it used to. Instead, the motion is detected by sensors and relayed to computer chips. These chips then signal motors to turn the wheels or activate the brakes.
Once microprocessors entered such control loops, they brought the ability to do more than just relay the driver's intent. They could embellish it with intelligence. Antilock braking systems (ABS) were an early example. "With ABS, you can make a typical driver perform like an expert driver," says Chrysler's Avesian.
The latest spin on ABS technology goes beyond pumping the brakes to avoid skids. It out-thinks Sunday drivers who try to zip around a curve too fast. Yaw and pitch sensors detect excessive sideways force, and before the driver loses control, a computer intervenes--nudging the brakes while easing back on the throttle to prevent fishtailing or oversteering.
The first such system, called the Electronic Stability Program (ESP), was unveiled in 1995 by Germany's Robert Bosch. BMW quickly added ESP to a couple of high-end models, and Audi and Mercedes-Benz soon followed. Last year, the system was installed in some 50,000 cars, mostly European luxury models. GM put a similar technology on some Cadillacs, and Honda Motor Co. is pioneering stability systems in Japan, on Accords.
MISSING MOOSE. This year, ESP is a hot ticket--thanks to a mishap with Mercedes-Benz's new little A-class car. Last year an A car flipped during a maneuver that tests a car's ability to swerve around an unexpected obstacle at 37 mph. Daimler Benz stopped production to reengineer the A-class, adding the former $1,000 ESP option as a standard feature. The stabilized A-class model passed Sweden's so-called moose test--moose and elk are frequent interlopers on Swedish roads. Then Daimler announced that ESP will be included on all its cars. Not to be outdone, Volkswagen and other European car companies began plunking down big orders. Bosch pegs sales at 250,000 this year and heading for 1 million in 2000.
Many more electronic marvels are coming. Suppliers and auto makers in Asia, Europe, and the U.S. are developing new cruise controls. These versions are dubbed adaptive, or intelligent, because they don't just maintain a set speed. They use radar to gauge the speed of a slower-moving vehicle ahead and automatically slow your car to the same speed until you decide to pass. Adaptive cruise control is now available on the Mitsubishi Diamante, and Ford has outfitted a Jaguar XJ6 with a prototype, which performed flawlessly during a recent test in Dearborn, Mich. A BUSINESS WEEK editor navigated 15 miles of moderate traffic on I-94 without once touching the brake or accelerator, despite being cut off twice by Michigan cowboys.
With a different set of sensors and motors, the way a car rides can adapt to road-surface changes on a second-by-second basis. Other sensors will surround cars with an early-warning cocoon. Infrared detectors can spot the heat of a car in the blind spot and sound an alarm when you flick the turn signal before changing lanes. New radars are being developed that will see past a truck ahead--by bouncing a signal off the pavement under the truck--to determine if it's safe to pass.
G-Link Technology, a privately held company in San Jose, Calif., is one of many outfits working on inexpensive optical-imaging chips for cars. Placed over the rear bumper, they could aid in parallel parking. Or they could peer backward from under the rear-window brake light and from a corner of both outside rearview mirrors. All the views could then be digitally combined and displayed on a screen that takes the place of the inside rear-view. "So I can see everything behind me, including the blind spot," says G-Link Vice-President Max L. Blankenzee. He expects the first applications to show up next fall in Japan.
The rear-view mirror might have a camera, too--keeping an eye on the driver for signs of sleepiness. Drowsy-driver alerts will also be featured on some new car-navigation systems. They'll be smart enough to tell the difference between erratic wandering and ducking in and out while looking for an opening to pass. When a driver begins to nod off, the car will set off a flashing light or buzzer. Cell phones are becoming de rigueur on next-generation navigation systems, so the driver or the car's computer can retrieve traffic updates from the Internet--or call 911 and relay your location when an air bag pops or the engine conks out.
Within a decade or so, cars could become so savvy and chatty that hitting the road will be a much more pleasant experience. Pulling into a crowded passing lane should be no hassle, for instance. Your car's computer will alert the computers in adjacent cars, and they'll let you in because chips don't practice aggressive driving. It may get harder and harder for people to endanger others by engaging in risky behavior behind the wheel. The rolling PC will know what's reckless, and everything the driver wants to do will have to go through a computer.