Getting It Right

Every August for the past 51 years, OEMs and suppliers have made their way to northern Michigan, first to Traverse City proper and for the past several years, Acme, where the Grand Traverse Resort is located.

As some of you will note, “Acme Corporation” is where Wile E. Coyote got his gear for his attempts to slow down the Road Runner, attempts that proved to be futile. And I got the sense at this year’s CAR Management Briefing Seminars (cargroup.org) in Acme that any attempt to slow down the technology advances that are occurring in automotive—advances in materials, advances in powertrain, advances in autonomy, advances in connectivity—will be about as successful as Coyote trying to stop the Road Runner.

I’ve been attending what’s generally just called “MBS” for more years than I would like to admit. I probably learn more about technology and management in the four days that I’m there than any period during the rest of the year.  As I think back on some of the earlier years, I learned about stamping die design and functional build, about laser welding and lean production. There would also be an automotive executive coming in on the Wednesday of an MBS to provide a Grand Overview.

When the Great Recession hit, MBS seemed as shocked, awed and knocked back on its heels like the rest of the auto industry. In the years following that, the presentations and overall exchanges that occurred among those who made the northern trek were subdued and the visionary approaches were pretty much focused not much further than a financial quarter or two ahead.

This year, however, things were different. There wasn’t any wringing of hands. There wasn’t a duck-and-cover timidity. But at the same time there wasn’t the sort of bloviating braggadocio that contributed to the cratering of the industry not that long ago, when people seemed to think that neither competitors nor the economy could have an effect on their fortunes. And we know how that story ended. 

This year there seemed to be a clear sense that things are changing more rapidly technologically and competitively than perhaps at any time since the early days of the 20th century when motor cars were certainly produced with “mixed materials”—although the composite was wood, not carbon fiber reinforced plastics—, when there was not only a competition between internal combustion and electric powertrains, but also steam, when there were a multiplicity of car companies created by all manner of people (e.g., Billy Durant made his money on Wall Street before establishing not only the Chevrolet Motor Car Company, but also Mason Motor Company and Little Motor Car Company, to name just two that you’d have to Google to find).

This year there seemed to be an attitude of “we’ve got to get this right.”

Arguably, there were two big topics at MBS 2016, with one being quite massive on the minds of all attending: the Draft Technical Assessment Report: Midterm Evaluation of Light-Duty Vehicle Greenhouse Gas Emission Standards and Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards for Model Years 2022-2025 that had been released by the Office of Transportation and Air Quality, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation; and the California Air Resources Board just two weeks before the event commenced.

The “TAR,” as it is known, effects everything. What materials vehicles will be made with. What types of powertrains will be propelling the cars and trucks of just a few years hence. Safety. Even employment.

The thing is, the TAR isn’t proposing some wholesale revolution in the auto industry as it is known today. It may be surprising to learn that, for example, whether the goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or to meet CAFE numbers, internal combustion engines—turbocharged and downsized, in particular, fitted with eight-speeds or CVTs—will have the lion’s share of the auto market, with electric vehicles being down in the three percent or less arena. (But as Maryann Wright, Johnson Controls group vice present, Technology & Industry Relations, pointed out on an “Autoline After Hours” that we shot at MBS, three percent in an industry that produces as many units as auto does isn’t something that can be ignored.)

TAR stresses that there needs to be different approaches taken to the design, engineering and production of cars and trucks in order to create efficient and affordable vehicles.

TAR is a draft proposal. Which means it can and will change. Given some of the lively discussions at MBS, it is likely that there are modifications aborning.

That said, it still seems as though the idea “We’ve got to get this right” will prevail.  


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Gary Vasilash invented this magazine in 1996 and wrote a column for its predecessor publication starting in 1987. Chances are, if you're reading this, you know him by now, possibly for a long, long time.