Engineers, execs discuss new challenges facing car biz

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

The automotive industry has always prided itself on developing new technologies and standards to make vehicles more efficient, powerful and safer.

But in recent years the focus has shifted from implementing new parts to evolving current technologies to create relevant and satisfying “customer experiences,” according to industry officials.

“The challenge, now, is defining what are we going to do with this technology,” said Marios Zenios, Chrysler Group LLC vice president of global software quality, during the SAE 2014 Convergence conference Tuesday at Cobo Center. “How are we going to create consumer experiences?”

New vehicle technologies – from Wi-Fi hotspots to adaptive cruise control – have drivers expecting more from their vehicles than ever before. A vehicle is no longer just a mode of transportation, it’s a GPS, a smartphone and an Internet-streaming tool. About 2,000 people are attending the two-day conference through Wednesday that features more than 50 speakers.

Many conference discussions Tuesday centered on the importance of in-vehicle technologies smoothly communicating with drivers and passengers, also known as user interface (UI) or human-machine interface (HMI).

“The car keeps reinventing itself,” said Ralph Gilles, Chrysler senior vice president of product design, during a keynote Tuesday morning. “What we try to do at Chrysler is make cars as soulful as humanly possible, and now the interesting thing is giving the car a soul is becoming the next big thing.”

In the automotive industry, giving the vehicle a “soul” was traditionally done through design. While still true with today’s cars and trucks, the new technologies are taking the expression to another level. Gilles called it “connecting souls.”

But connecting the vehicle’s “soul” with the driver has become a major problem for automakers in recent years.

“No one has really nailed the human-machine interface in vehicles,” said James A. Buczkowski, Ford Motor Co. director of electrical and electronics systems, research and innovation, during a panel discussion. “We’ve all had our challenges.”

Ford is considered the first mainstream automaker to experience the double-edged sword that is in-vehicle technology. Its MyFord Touch infotainment system was considered a flagship, but due to interface problems, drew heavy criticism that damaged its reputation for reliability.

Jeff Hemphill, Schaeffler Group vice president of automotive, said part of the reason automakers are having trouble is they’ve never had to adapt so quickly to integrate non-automotive devices, such as smartphones and tablets, into cars and trucks. He said the industry needs more collaboration to ensure the technologies are dependable, safe and secure.

“Enhanced connectivity brings with it security and privacy concerns ... there comes a need for information sharing across the entire automotive community,” he said during opening remarks at the conference.

Some vehicles, officials said, can contain 100 or so on-board ECUs, also known as powertrain control modules, that support engine and driving characteristics under the hood. Like a computer system, a hacker could potentially link into the system and take control or steal data and information.

David Strickland, former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration administrator, said the reason there haven’t been reports of vehicle hacking is because connected cars aren’t prevalent enough and there’s no financial incentive to do so. But once someone figures out a way to make it profitable, he said the industry needs to be ready.

“As we have larger and more connectivity across the fleet, there’s going to be more incentives (for hackers) to create more problems,” said Strickland, now a partner in consulting and lobbying firm Venable LLP. “Or the even scarier aspect, which you’re dealing with right now, are acts of terrorism.”

In July, two industry trade groups, Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Association of Global Automakers, informed NHTSA that they planned to launch a cybersecurity initiative designed for companies to voluntarily share best practices in an effort to help protect drivers and their personal information.

The organizations, which represent dozens of automakers, plan to provide periodic status reports to NHTSA to update the agency on our progress. However, the agreement does not mandate companies to participate in the discussions or sharing.

Other discussions at the 2014 SAE Convergence on Tuesday included attracting millennials to the industry, autonomous and automated vehicles and future issues facing automakers.

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