In the late 1980s the then Rover group introduced a brand-spanking new engine, the K-Series, to replace it’s venerable A-Series engine. The A-series had been in service since 1951 when it was introduced with the brand new Austin A30. The K-Series was a big, complex step for Rover, and as with Ford who a few years later phased out their A-Series compatriot, the Kent engine, an awful lot of research and development had gone into its production.
The K-Series used new methods of casting, funky new materials and all sorts of tricks to make the engine lighter and more powerful. Rover were justifiably proud of their new baby; then the public got their hands on it, didn’t treat it quite right and it instantly gained a terrible reputation for reliability. They overheat, the masses cried, and then they’re scrap. Rover’s name was mud, and their shining hope tarnished.
As the internal combustion engine has become ever more complex, the bar to entry for new companies building automobiles has traditionally got higher and higher. To develop a brand new engine, from scratch, is phenomenally expensive. And relying on another manufacturer to produce your engine isn’t exactly an endeavour that many people find palatable. What if they can’t meet your demand? What if they decide they don’t want to sell you engines? In your desire to usurp the old guard from their throne, you hardly want to be depending on that same old guard to supply you with tools. Add to that the large expense of tooling up to produce bodies, crash testing, and bringing dealers into the equation and you’re faced with what seems an insurmountable hill to climb. The route in to volume manufacturing has therefore often been to buy an out-of-date design from a manufacturer, pimp it a little, and resell it as a rebadged new car.
But is that truly still the case? Or does Tesla’s success indicate the beginnings of a change vehicle production. Can lighter, more nimble car companies make their way in a world which is changing so rapidly?
Back at that moment in history when computers went from being big objects produced by large companies with an end product the size of a room, to things that everyone had in their house, there was a period of time when there was a massive proliferation in the number of manufacturers.
Apple, Acorn, Commadore, Sinclair, Compukit, Apricot, Amstrad, Vic, TI, Jupiter, Camputers, Sord, Atari, Tandy… everyone who could hurl together a pile of components and a plastic box suddenly started marketing a computer. Often incompatible and lacking in refinement many of these manufacturers went to the wall fairly rapidly. But a few managed to build a name and become household names when previously they’d been literally garage start-ups. It’s been seen again and again in technology development. Just before Apple introduced the iPhone there were a plethora of handsets from a massive number of manufacturers, each of whom had their own design. Many of those standard bearers died out as the smartphone took hold. Now, again, as the price of entry to the smartphone market has dropped, the same has happened. From the crowdsourced Jolla to the quirkily marketed OnePlus One, new competitors vying for the crown have appeared in a playing field that was, for a while, dominated by what can only be considered the old guard.
Unlike with traditional automobiles, the technology playing field has been unstable because developments have been so very rapid, the cost of implementing them often small, and the components required to manufacture them made by companies very distinct from those making the majority of the products. An iPhone is, to be sure, an iPhone, and it may have an Apple designed processor in it, but that processor is a derivative of the ARM processor available off the shelf to any manufacturer. And its components could be produced in any electronics factory in any number of countries, or even bought off a market stall in Shenzen.
Could the automobile be heading the same way? A recent teardown of the Tesla Model S luxury sedan by IHS Automotive demonstrated that it is much more closely acquainted with the consumer electronics engineering philosophy than the traditional mechanical engineering concepts of most cars on the market. Similarly, whilst I was off learning how mechanics train to work on hybrids (an article you’ll get to enjoy shortly) I was struck by the fact that many of the mechanical engineering skills of the traditional small independent mechanic become largely redundant with hybrids.
Whilst current manufacturers often disguise electric vehicle technology so it looks sort-of-familiar to a shade-tree mechanic, the actual contents of those boxes under the bonnet are entirely unrelated to the contents of your standard ICE engine bay. And many of the skills that are going to become more and more important in designing and maintaining this modern day fleet are those more commonly associated with electronic design.
Given the high profile failures of Aptera and Fisker, and BYD’s struggles in the marketplace to achieve their goals with the e6, perhaps it’s not the moment for optimistically imagining the future. After all, compexity and expense still surround the suspension and chassis components, but maybe there’s a moment in the future when we’ll be treated to a range of motor vehicles conceptually more like what was available in the 1950s.Where smaller manufacturers could bring to market exciting and innovative vehicles and where variety was much more of a feature of the market.
A step change from the current situation where one car maker sells the same car under multiple brand-names, with different bumpers, and everyone pretends it’s a different car. But perhaps at this point in time we’re closer to that than we have been for a while. Whilst early electric vehicle start-ups often built low-speed, low-spec neighbourhood electric vehicles (NEVs) with questionable safety standards, perhaps now we’re approaching the point where the cost of the technology is low enough that more makers can get in on the action.
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