Navigant Research Blog

John Krafcik Takes the Steering Wheel of Google Car Project

— September 29, 2015

Someday, Google’s vision of cars without steering wheels, accelerators, or brake pedals may come to fruition. For the foreseeable future, however, intelligent people will still be necessary to guide the process of actually developing and building those machines. Incidentally, Google has just hired one of the smartest in the business, John Krafcik. The former Ford, Hyundai, and TrueCar executive is now the CEO of Google’s self-driving vehicle program.

As the former head of product planning and later CEO of Hyundai Motor America, Krafcik demonstrated his ability to run an operation that develops, manufactures, and markets vehicles to a mainstream audience. Prior to his decade with Hyundai, Krafcik spent 14 years at Ford, where he is reputed to have coined the term “lean manufacturing” in an article he wrote while working on his MBA at MIT.

Navigant Research’s Autonomous Vehicles report projects that by 2025, approximately 45 million light duty vehicles with at least Level 2 semi-autonomous capability will be sold globally every year. Level 2 is defined as a system that can automatically control at least two primary functions—such as steering and speed. Widespread adoption of Level 4 systems that can handle all primary driving functions without human intervention are unlikely before the 2030s.

Google and the Automotive World

For Google, Krafcik brings a reality check to the company’s automotive ambitions. Unlike Google’s primary businesses, the automotive industry is one of the most heavily regulated in the world, and the product can put lives at risk. Representatives from several manufacturers have acknowledged that they have been approached by Google about partnering on autonomous vehicles. However, Google’s approach so far has been to have manufacturers supply a vehicle platform while Google provides a black box of software that the manufacturers have neither control nor influence over. Given the many unresolved legal and ethical questions around autonomous vehicles, this approach has been rejected so far.

Krafcik knows how the auto industry functions and why it so often appears to be extremely conservative in rolling out state-of-the-art technology. He has a keen understanding of how to mass manufacture vehicles in high volumes and what mainstream consumers want in a vehicle. At the same time, he is an acknowledged risk taker in taking his companies into new market segments. Under his leadership at Hyundai, the brand steadily expanded from a second-tier purveyor of value, building credibility with consumers and critics so that it can now sell luxury cars like the Genesis without being laughed at.

Krafcik’s Credentials

This writer has known Krafcik for 8 years and he is clearly an engineer and manager that appreciates a challenge. Prior to being promoted to CEO at Hyundai’s American branch, the office had a rotating door of occupants who struggled with the home office’s demands. Krafcik managed to occupy the post for an unusually long 5 years and is likely the best candidate that Google could have hired.

Chris Urmson will continue leading the technical development side while Krafcik opens possibilities as this project evolves into a real business. Krafcik is well-respected in the industry, and if Google decides to pursue OEM partnerships, he is far more likely to be successful in brokering deals than those that have a distinctly Silicon Valley mindset. On the other hand, if Google opts to get into the manufacturing of cars, Krafcik knows that side of the business equally well—whether Google wants either its own factories or a contract builder like Magna Steyr to handle the work. Whichever path Google takes, the future looks interesting. And that is said without even knowing if Apple will get involved.


High-Strength Steel or Aluminum for Vehicle Body Parts: That Is the Question

— August 10, 2015

In a presentation to the 2015 CAR Management Briefing Seminars, Eric Petersen, the vice president of research and innovation at AK Steel, outlined his plans to produce the next generation of high-strength steel. He was confident that new innovations from steel suppliers will prevent the loss of more market share to aluminum. As Petersen demonstrates, Ford’s decision to convert its F-150 to all-aluminum has prompted steel suppliers to get creative.

However, there are a lot of things to consider when choosing a material for manufacture of vehicle components. Current vehicle bodies and closures are made primarily of sheet metal, although carbon and glass fiber-reinforced plastic are also used. Original equipment manufacturer (OEM) designers and engineers have to consider both the requirements of the finished vehicle and the ability to manufacture it efficiently.

Modern production lines depend on assembly techniques that can be automated, and fixing parts together must use a process that can be done by robots both for speed and repetition. Depending on the material, this may involve spot welding, seam welding, rivets, bolts, glue, etc. If production facilities are already equipped with a certain capability, changing to a material that needs a different joining process might require a major investment, which may only be practical when the existing equipment is reaching the end of its useful life.

Part manufacture is another consideration. Many body parts have complex shapes. If they are stamped and need a deep draw, then there may be a limit on how thin the material can be. Steel that is developed to have high strength has a higher yield stress than ordinary mild steel, which is a benefit in the finished article to absorb loads, but makes it harder to form during manufacture. Other lightweight materials such as magnesium have poor formability for body panels but can be cast for uses such as the instrument panel beam in the 2015 Ford Mustang. Some materials are treated after shaping to make them harder, but that also adds cost. Different materials also require different post-manufacture treatments to prevent corrosion.

Once a part is manufactured and assembled, it has to meet various performance specifications. A vehicle body structure has to be stiff in torsion and bending, cope with fatigue loading at load points, handle rollover and side impact loads, and absorb crash energy while keeping occupants safe. In addition to meeting these structural goals, overall vehicle fuel efficiency targets mean that keeping the weight low is now critical. And, as always, there is the ever-present need to keep costs as low as possible.

No Silver Bullet

Just as with powertrains, there is no silver bullet material that is ideal for every application. Material suppliers should recognize the big-picture approach of the automotive manufacturers, which involves reducing the number of platforms to increase volume of many parts and to streamline manufacturing processes. OEMs are increasingly using multi-disciplinary optimization for part design, which considers a wide range of factors including manufacturability, assembly, structural performance, weight, functionality, and overall cost.

Future vehicles are more likely to be made from a variety of materials than to stick with one or shift entirely to another. Material suppliers should consider how to make parts with their products that not only perform better than the competition at lower cost, but also integrate easily into existing platforms.


After a Century, the Era of the Cadillac V8 Is Over

— April 16, 2015

Twenty years ago, the thought of building a flagship Cadillac sedan without a V8 engine under the hood would have been virtually unthinkable. Nonetheless, in the coming months, the all-new Cadillac CT6 will hit the road to take on the likes of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 7 Series with only 4- and 6-cylinder engine options to start with plus diesel and plug-in hybrid electric capability in the future. General Motors (GM) has created what it hopes will be a viable competitor to the segment leaders by harnessing a combination of advanced powertrain technologies and lightweighting to achieve both its performance goals and increasingly stringent fuel efficiency and emissions targets.

Cadillac introduced the first mass-produced V8 engine 101 years ago and, until as recently as 2010, every top of the line Cadillac had a minimum of 8 cylinders under the hood. After first being teased in a television ad run during the 2015 Academy Awards broadcast, the CT6 is debuting at the 2015 New York Auto Show and goes on sale later this year.

Bigger, Better, Not Heavier

In order to help meet the often conflicting goals of performance, driving dynamics, and energy efficiency, Cadillac is incorporating all of the major technologies discussed in Navigant Research’s Automotive Fuel Efficiency Technologies report. Despite its significantly larger size compared to the existing CTS sedan, the CT6 is estimated to weigh about the same 3,600 lbs thanks to extensive use of aluminum in its structure.

A combination of stampings, castings, and extrusions accounts for 64% of the mass of the structure and contributes to an overall reduction of 198 lbs compared to a comparable steel version. GM developed new techniques for laser and spot welding of aluminum in addition to the rivets, screws, and adhesives used extensively by Ford in its new F-150 pickup trucks.

Still High Performance

Starting from a lighter platform enables the engineers to utilize smaller, more efficient engines without sacrificing the performance that customers in this segment expect. At launch, the CT6 will be available with GM’s existing 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder, an all-new 3.6-liter normally aspirated V6, or a twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V6 producing 400 horsepower and 400 lbs-ft. of torque. All of the engines feature direct injection and variable valve timing. The V6s will be GM’s first overhead-camshaft engines to feature cylinder deactivation with the ability to disable valve actuation and fuel flow on 2 cylinders under light load conditions.

Each power plant is paired with one of GM’s new 8-speed automatic transmissions and has auto stop-start functionality to shut down the engine when the vehicle comes to a stop to prevent wasting fuel while idling. Cadillac won’t reveal fuel economy numbers for the CT6 until later this year, but the new 3.6-liter V6 is expected to increase fuel economy of the midsize CTS by 9% compared to the 2015 model.

V8 86ed

In addition to these advanced gasoline engines, Cadillac plans to add both diesel and plug-in hybrid electric powertrains to its lineup over the next several years. What about the classic V8 configuration? Those are now limited to a pair of niche but still highly profitable segments, the ultra-high-performance CTS-V sedan and the full-size Escalade SUV. The rest of the lineup will rely on fours, sixes, and electrification from now on. It seems that a century after it began, the era of the mainstream Cadillac V8 engine has drawn to a close.

Update: Shortly after this blog was posted, Cadillac president Johan de Nysschen contacted me to confirm that the brand does in fact have a new high-performance V8 engine in development. While V8s will no longer be the volume powertrain, they will remain part of the future Cadillac lineup.


Seeking Fuel Economy, Automakers Slim Down

— April 16, 2015

As automakers scramble to stay on track to meet the 54.5 mpg corporate average fuel economy mandate by 2025, weight reduction is expected to be one of the key pathways to hitting that target. During 2015, General Motors (GM) is launching a wide range of new-generation vehicles—from its subcompact Chevrolet Spark up through its flagship Cadillac CT6 sedan, with virtually every new model boasting significant weight reductions thanks to new computer-aided engineering (CAE) processes.

Lightweighting and Global Platforms

In Navigant Research’s Automotive Fuel Efficiency Technologies report, lightweighting is identified along with engine downsizing and engine stop-start technologies as the main vectors for achieving the most cost-effective improvements in fuel efficiency for high-volume vehicles. GM is pursuing all of these approaches, but its weight reduction efforts are among the most notable. Similar to Ford’s approach of rationalizing its product lineup with common vehicles sold in global markets, GM also made a shift to global platforms in the latter part of the last decade.

Designing global vehicles that must conform to often conflicting crash safety standards led to a first generation of vehicles that often turned out heavier than previous models because they were not properly optimized. For GM, the problem was exacerbated by the financial difficulties it faced during the late 2000s leading up to its 2009 bankruptcy reorganization. The continuous effort to cut costs led to a gutting of engineering resources as staff were either laid off or fled for greener pastures in other industries.

Revving Up

Over the last 5 years, as the auto industry has recovered to prerecession sales levels, the once sparsely populated engineering centers at GM, Chrysler, and Ford are now full again and new design techniques are being applied to the next generation of vehicles. We’ve already seen Ford introduce an all-new aluminum-bodied F-150 pickup truck that cut nearly 700 lbs of weight.

So far in 2015, GM has announced the next-generation Chevrolet Volt and Malibu and the new Cadillac CT6 sedan, with a new Chevrolet Camaro and Cruze still to come. The Volt and Malibu will be nearly 250 lbs and 300 lbs lighter, respectively, while the CT6 is projected to have a base curb weight of about 3,600 lbs. The latter is comparable to the midsize CTS sedan, which is 8 inches shorter and 2 inches narrower. The CT6 is roughly 800 lbs lighter than the Mercedes-Benz S550, 700 lbs less than the current BMW 740i, and 400 lbs less than the similarly sized Cadillac XTS.


GM has achieved these impressive reductions through extensive application of multidisciplinary optimization (MDO). Traditionally, the development of various aspects of a vehicle was siloed, with teams responsible for specific aspects of the design. The expanded use of advanced CAE and simulations has enabled greater collaboration early in the design process, leading to more granular optimization. Engineers are able to select a wider variety of materials, including aluminum and high-strength steel alloys, to achieve the best balance of weight, strength, manufacturability, and cost.

Just as Ford was able to maintain or improve the payload and towing capabilities of its trucks while shifting to smaller, more efficient engines, GM is able to improve the performance and driving dynamics of its vehicles despite downsized engines. Chevrolet has projected a 7% improvement in combined fuel economy for the base gasoline engine Malibu to 31 mpg, while the new hybrid version is projected to achieve 47 mpg combined. Over the next 10 years, this pattern of weight reduction is expected to continue as other new materials such as carbon fiber composites are put to use, benefiting both electrified vehicles and those that continue with internal combustion engines.


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