Automotive manufacturers are getting more advanced equipment from their suppliers. We recently spoke with Mike Maloney, Vice President of Global Product Development for Lear Electronics Division, about current and future plans for specific automotive technologies.
ED: In-vehicle networks like CAN and LIN provide a level of compatibility, but current products require a degree of customization that limits interchangeable components among manufacturers. Will more extensive standards lead to better interchangeabiltiy? And will vendors find this approach to be advantageous in the long run?
Maloney: OEMs have wanted proprietary solutions to differentiate their products, but speed-to-market pressures are forcing more commonality in products from suppliers. Consumers don't care about the underlying solution as long as it's robust and economical, and it meets their re-quirements. Using standard components based on technologies like CAN lets suppliers deliver products with new features quickly.
Internal defacto standards, such as Ford's Standard Corporate Protocol (SCP), will continue to be used because its dealers have a vested interest in it through their diagnostic equipment. Lear delivers what its customers want and can integrate standards such as SCP and CAN in the products.
Lear currently uses CAN and expects to use LIN if its lower-cost projections per node hold true.
ED: Vehicle manufacturers are asking suppliers to provide more than just components. How much freedom do suppliers have in designing new systems? Also, what advantages can they bring to manufacturers?
Maloney: OEMs are giving Lear a broad spectrum of responsibility. Some OEMs are allowing Lear to choose and qualify its suppliers. Lear has worked closely with OEMs like GM on projects such as GM's new G-Van. We essentially take a GM van and install the complete interior comparable to what many customization companies do, but consumers get a product that's still covered by a factory warranty.
We're also seeing more model lines being divided into "niche vehicles" built on a common base with different interiors and exteriors. Japanese manufacturers have effectively exploited this approach. We provide "chuck sourcing" of complete systems, such as an instrument panel with all of the electronics.
ED: What improvements in occupant protection technology will occur over the next five to 10 years?
Maloney: Lear is focusing on the occupant-detection aspect of the protection strategy. New government rules come into play in 2003 and 2004 that will require new sensor technology to discern the difference between children, small adults, and large adults, so that smart airbags will know when to fire and how much power to employ. A majority of the work on new technology will go into addressing this issue.
There are promising new technologies, including side-curtain airbags. But, it's unclear whether the majority of the market will demand these types of features currently found only on luxury vehicles.
ED: On-board automotive computing power is expected to increase significantly over the next five to 10 years. To what degree will self-diagnostics be coming into play and how will products from Lear take advantage of such capabilities?
Maloney: There's no question that computing power and memory are becoming cheaper and that OEMs will take advantage of replacing mechanical components with electromechanical or almost completely electronic components. Diagnostics will improve by necessity. Telematic products will grow much like cable TV has grown as prices for products, like mapping and tracking systems, reach $500. These sophisticated products will need network diagnostics to isolate and pinpoint problems.
ED: How important will web-based B2B support be to Lear? Furthermore, will XML play a part in Lear's interaction with its customers?
Maloney: Much of our EDI information exchange with customers is done using Automotive Network Exchange (ANX), which is a secure and reliable Internet connection.
Several efforts are underway for different projects that will utilize XML. Some of the EDI information may be available in this fashion, but this will be part of new projects. ANX is expected to remain part of our B2B solution.