Dudder: Man vs. Machine

Columns From: 6/1/2006 Automotive Design & Production, , Contributing Editor

I have noticed a troubling trend in the industry.

I have noticed a troubling trend in the industry. As the number and variety of nameplates proliferate, OEMs are relying on computer aids to do more of the work. Unfortunately, this trend comes at the same time as the average age—and experience—of the OEM’s engineering staff declines, and their workload increases. As a result, there has been a noticeable decline in the level of refinement found in today’s vehicles.

By “refinement” I do not necessarily mean fit and finish, or quality of materials, or those things that show up on quality surveys. Though, at times, automakers have missed the mark in these areas as well. Rather, I have in mind the level of sophistication—especially in terms of ride and handling—found in vehicles today. In some cases it has declined despite the increase in technology.

Coincidence is not causation, so I do not mean to say that we’d all be better off with live axles, semi-elliptic leaf springs, and worm-and-roller steering. However, I find it disturbing that vehicles with multi-link rear suspensions and other goodies often fall far short of their potential ride and handling capabilities. After all, shouldn’t this level of technology make the car fun-to-drive, adjustable in a corner, and not require a ride that is too harsh—or too mushy? Yet, I am finding an increasing number of vehicles fitted with these items that do not live up to their promise, including some that rely on electronics to mask their faults as you approach their handling limits.

Computers are amazing machines, and the software available for them allows things to be done in minutes that took months—or could not be done at all—in the past. Ideally, a practiced hand will use them to consider multiple possibilities, and choose the most promising solution. From there, it’s out to the test track to see whether or not the design lives up to its promise and to see what modifications have to be made. A depth of knowledge is necessary for this process to be a success. One that understands a computer can’t create, it can only analyze the information it has been given, and that human judgment is necessary before a final decision can be made.

It is becoming apparent that in some instances the process is stopping before the human judgment phase. The experience necessary to get all of these pieces to work together in a fluid manner takes years to acquire. Unfortunately, that hard-won experience is walking out the door as part of the growing “cardboard box brigade” as the industry downsizes. It is exacerbated by the drive to lower costs by limiting the number of prototypes and compounded by late changes in the design. Yet, even at those companies where late changes are common, updates are often made in subsequent years to alleviate problems that should have been handled up front. As the number of prototypes shrinks along with the number of experienced engineers, getting the most out of what is available will become even more critical, as will a disciplined process and courage to stand by decisions.

Designing and developing a vehicle is by no means a perfect system, and the reliance on computer modeling will increase as the speed and power of computers and the capability of software increase. What is becoming increasingly clear, however, is that this speed, power, and capability are powerless to produce the right answer without the right inputs. Sadly that infor-mation is either being ignored or sent out the door in a vain attempt to save money.