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Why Big Changes in Vehicle Design Happen More Often

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June 22, 2020—For most of the 20th century, when vehicles were made up of mostly mechanical parts, really big changes in vehicle design happened slowly and methodically.

There might have been decades between design updates that made huge, lasting impacts. It isn't that way anymore. Ben Cruz, who directs the Center for Advanced Automotive Technology at Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich., sees this as the larger historical narrative of vehicle design.

The root of the shift? A move from big mechanical updates to big electronic and digital updates.

“Now it has changed to where almost everything is being controlled electronically, which is a huge difference," Cruz says. "In the beginning, it took years and years and years to make a revolutionary change.”

Now things change much more rapidly—annually, even. That presents new challenges for repairers, educators and consumers.

 

More Change, More Often

When more electronic, computer-controlled components were first added to vehicles, they controlled things like air-fuel mixture or fuel injection. They improved the overall design of the vehicle, but they weren't necessarily sea changes.

Cruz says that as computer-controlled components started to take over vehicle construction, a door was opened for quicker updates. It was in the mid-to-late-2000s that this became standard vehicle design.

That leads to updates that are digital, not mechanical. A software update can bring new features much more quickly than a replacement mechanical part. This is apparent in the evolving ADAS ecosystem. 

In a previous career, Cruz was a senior engineering group manager, leading General Motors' Climatic Wind Tunnels and the HVAC Laboratories. These were important, full-scale development and testing facilities. He says that, while those operations continue, development in the digital space has advantages of time.

“When you take your regular development time, it takes a lot longer if you have to test properties or parts or components," he says. "whereas if you can design and simulate, it’s very very quick. You can do it in a matter of weeks, months instead of years.”

The end result is the rapid rise of ADAS and other features. Infotainment, communications and connectivity are all rapidly evolving features that have become near standard in new model years.

“Now, on a yearly basis, we’ve got new vehicle ability." Cruz says. "Each one of those vehicles is getting closer and closer to the point in time when they will be totally driverless.”

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