Design cars like planes, use them like cellphones

June 05, 2014 // By Junko Yoshida
The automotive industry is caught between an app and a hard place. On one hand, carmakers are feeling growing pressure from thoroughly modern consumers, who expect their next car to respond more like a smartphone.

On the other hand, the complexity inherent in developing connected cars and autonomous driving is so dire that cars of tomorrow will need to be designed more like airplanes.

James Buczkowski, Henry Ford technical fellow and director for EE systems at Ford Motor Co., came to the Design Automation Conference in San Francisco this week and issued a "call for action."

In a dual keynote speech with Jim Tung, MathWorks fellow at MathWorks, the Ford executive concluded that, without tools and methods that keep up with the automotive design challenges, a car's complexity will just keep growing. No longer will consumers be able to say: "It just works."

To illustrate the dilemma, Buczkowski shared a slide comparing automobiles with smartphones and airplanes in terms of consumer expectation, production volume, product lifetime, operating environment, maintenance required, and regulation.

A contrast between three industries -- smartphone, automobile, and airplane.(Source: Ford)
A contrast between three industries -- smartphone, automobile, and airplane.
(Source: Ford)

Buczkowski said the biggest difference between cars and cellphones is "cycle time." Normally, it takes 24-48 months to develop a new car, and its platform lasts about 10 years, with "freshening in between." Development of a car model begins two or more years before the start of production.

What makes cars more like consumer electronics products is the fact that both need to be affordable, he said. However, if you compare 4 million cars that are sold in a year with the 4 million smartphones that can be snatched up over a weekend, the scale is hardly the same. Carmakers can't just keep adding more features and increasing the cost, either. Perhaps more importantly, cars must be designed for both 16-year-olds and 60-year-olds.

Despite these variances, CE products and cars are similar, because they both need to survive on slim profit margins in a very competitive market.

Where the consumer electronics and automotive industries radically diverge is in regulatory requirements. Consumers don't always understand such issues, Buczkowski said, and regulations are imposed, not just for safety purposes, but also to minimize driver distraction. The pressure on the automobile industry for emissions control and fuel economy is also paramount.