With recent news of aggressive new battery-electric vehicle model releases by major brands, in addition to executive orders extending from California to the European Union that limit or altogether ban the sale of internal-combustion-engine (ICE) platforms in the next 10-15 years, automotive companies and their employees are embarking on a great product transformation.
The degree and scale of this transformation, arguably the broadest in nature since the introduction of mass production, will profoundly affect not only what we buy and drive, but also the nature of what we build and how those vehicles are designed, sourced and serviced.
The recent announcement by General Motors to build new BEV truck platforms at the Detroit-Hamtramck Factory Zero plant, and the broad renegotiation of Cadillac dealer franchise licenses, emphasize the shifting operating models and business priorities in the marketplace.
The simple fact is this: You build, source and service a BEV platform very differently than traditional ICE vehicles.
Because of this, we need to collectively learn – and unlearn – some of the behaviors that have served us well since the start of mass production, but that can impact and even degrade industry output and performance under a new model.
The Learning Curve
In my early days in the defense sector, we had many failures before landing on new designs and then tested those designs thoroughly to understand what worked, what didn’t work and what simply wasn’t economically viable.
The good news for automakers is that we have been on this learning curve from a design perspective for some time. Even with the introduction of new materials and design features, electrified models have shown acceptable resilience in crash tests and road performance.
Software content per vehicle will continue to grow as these and even traditional ICE vehicles adddriver assistance, telematics and connectivity features. As a result, the need for a generation of software engineers to ensure the overall integrity of vehicles will transform the culture of many car companies on the design side.
On the service side, vehicle diagnostics software and even the introduction of over-the-air software updates will lessen the impact on vehicle maintenance. In most cases, BEVs are inherently all-wheel-drive vehicles, requiring greater care for simple tasks such as tire rotation.
To go one level deeper, the very nature of air-compressed tire design is being challenged for BEV purposes, with many tire makers showing concept tire designs that are solid in composition.
Unlearning for the Future
One doesn’t need to look past the vast number of American and global port facilities to understand the supply chain is sorely stressed for key technology elements for building BEV and advanced ICE vehicles at scale. The lessons of mass production, combined with the effects of globalization, have actually worked against the industry coming out of the pandemic.
Strong demand – largely outsourced to offshore markets for everything from basic parts to high-tech components and semiconductor chips – has created a high level of interest among automakers and government policymakers to reconsider verticalization.
At least on a regional level, the supply of critical parts as part of comprehensive industrial policy is a topic of discussion. When considering a semiconductor chip, global supply is limited to scale and to logistics of these micro-subassemblies and other complex solid-state parts.
Servicing and building primarily BEV models will require not only relearning by our white-collar work force but also by the skilled trades workers so essential for building, delivering and servicing our vehicles of tomorrow.
In some cases, older generations of workers will opt-out of this transition – much like we already are witnessing in the white-collar sectors as the industry collapses from five generations of workers to three. How each automaker transitions their workers – and the impact on highly defined job descriptions cherished by labor unions – will set themselves apart as we move into the next decade.
The Opportunity Ahead
The fact that BEV consumption is driven by renewable energy sources will play a big role in sustainability and greenhouse gas emissions targets. Technology has been shown to provide countless learning opportunities for tomorrow’s automotive workforce.
The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that the automotive industry is resilient, and even crafty, in defining what work can look like and how to shift operations and productions. These lessons will be essential as the industry, with the help of government policy, shifts to a more sustainable and safe future that will benefit us all.
William (Bill) Newman (pictured above, left) serves as industry executive advisor for automotive for SAP America.