Magazine article Management Today

Inside Story on the Car Makers

Magazine article Management Today

Inside Story on the Car Makers

Article excerpt

As traffic jams worsen, the time spent in cars increases. Yet the motor industry, in designing interiors, continues to disregard the driver's more fundamental needs.

By James Woudhuysen

The design of cars, the speakers at a recent Financial Times conference on the international motor industry suggested, has grown trickier and trickier. To keep up with innovation in the field of exhausts alone, a modem car-fitting station has to run more than 250 different part numbers. Already, a luxury car has 50 electronic control units, 70 electric motors, 3km of cable and 4,000 connecting pins. In 10 years, 20% of a car's costs will derive from its electronics. Then, the chip will not just be a 'primary enabler' of Performance features like anti-skid braking. it will also be an integrator of information throughout the vehicle, and eventually, the mobile lynchpin behind urban and motorway traffic management systems.

Or so we heard as facts about product technology came thick and fast from British part distributors Partco to West Germany's Robert Bosch and Siemens. The speakers talked production methods, and production volumes too. But the oratory was from prepared scripts. It was very 'suppply-side'. Thus the assembled European components suppliers, feeling edgy that Japanese rivals will soon set up factories on their home turf, faced tough words from Shojiro Miyake, managing director of Honda UK. He told them he wasn't certain they could match up to European local content' provisions -- and, over prices, admonished: you do not simply pass on annual economic influences'.

Engineering hardware and economic warfare (who will be first into Eastern Europe) these were the relentlessly relevant themes. But the perspective of the consumption of the motor vehicle, or that of car design from the angle of the driver and the passenger, was largely missing. Dr Hanjorg Manger, from the management board of Bosch, remarked that each new car sold in the US generates between 1.0 and 1.6 complaints. He felt that this figure was an achievement, but it's at least 1.0 complaints too high for me.

With complaints, much depends on what the trade calls 'build quality'. Given that even Japan's Toyota opened 1990 by recalling its defective Lexus sedan from the US market, that must remain a legitimate concern. But the problem of user-centred car design goes further than product quality. In the first place, it embraces safety.

Here there have been big advances. Mercedes makes seat-belts which, powered by explosives, tense up as soon as they feel a crash coming on. Fqually, Audi's latest steering wheels Pull back from your face in an accident. But as PrOfessor Walter Kunerth, president of Siemens' automotive systems grOUP, pointed out, such collision protection is now mixed with collision avoidance. Automatic braking will soon jostle with the anti-skid variety, and obstacle-sensing systems are on the way.

Kunerth's discussion of safety was to his credit. It was, however, left to Ford of Europe president Louis Lataif to mention - in passing the fundamental fact about cars these days. While product features and product quality 'have been improving substantially', he said, customers are not appreciably more satisfied. We must recognise and accept this as part of the competitive challenge.'

Why aren't car customers satisfied? …

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