Autonomous Cars and Automotive Manufacturing

May 27, 2015
To capitalize on this emerging market, suppliers will need to expand their manufacturing capabilities, increase collaboration with non-traditional partners, and accelerate the product development process.

For years, flying and driverless cars have been the stuff of dreams, anticipated to become reality in the 21st century. Today, at least one of them may be on the verge of fulfilling that vision, as autonomous vehicles from an Internet provider and various suppliers and automakers are expected to take to the road within this decade and the next. But how will they impact automotive manufacturing?

Autonomous cars, which refers to vehicles capable of travel without drivers fully engaged and directly controlling them, have captured the imagination of many, prompted a focus on their potential benefit to society and business, and sparked debate over whether or not they will become a mainstay in the marketplace.

On one hand, a lack of common manufacturing standards, inconsistent governing regulations, reservations about whether or not a vehicle can make “judgment calls” when the unexpected happens, and driver concerns have been identified as key issues that could stall their momentum. Studies have shown that up to two-thirds of motorists enjoy driving so much that they are reluctant to relinquish control to autonomous vehicles.

On the other hand, benefits like increased traveler comfort and convenience, safer roads, reduced transportation costs, and the prospect of fresh income streams for companies will likely accelerate the need to address and resolve any roadblocks. In fact, according to industry estimates, by 2020, the autonomous vehicle market is expected to be worth $87 billion. By 2040, four out of every 10 vehicles on the road could be autonomous.

Automakers and suppliers, in particular, are well positioned to capitalize on this emerging market. But to do so, they will need to expand their manufacturing capabilities, increase collaboration with non-traditional partners, and accelerate the product development process.

Manufacturing—The need for powertrains, glass, steel and interior structures will remain. But producing autonomous vehicles also will require that technologies are developed and produced specifically for their operation. These will include touch interface, voice recognition, location and motion tracking, short- and long-range sensors, significant software development, and advanced collision warning systems. Moreover, new opportunities in terms of automated fleets for the trucking industry and vehicle-as-a-service business models could expand the role of auto manufacturing.

Collaboration—A thriving autonomous car market, however, cannot be realized unless organizations in sectors as diverse as public transport, telecommunications, and local governments team with automakers to form an ecosystem to support it. Automakers already are developing ecosystems, driven by the connected vehicle market. But, in terms of automated cars, they will need partners like high-tech providers that offer sophisticated user interfaces, diagnostics, and predictive tools designed to understand and interpret driver behavior and the impact of traffic conditions. And partners will be needed that can provide software based on such data embedded into the vehicle as part of a framework for its operation on the road.

Product development—The autonomous car will likely add a new level of complexity to automotive product development and production that both automakers and suppliers will need to address to deliver it and other new products to market on time.

One approach companies can adopt to aid their efforts is to apply a new product development system called digital product lifecycle management (PLM). Digital PLM creates an environment that further enhances communication and helps to accelerate the product development process. It serves as a central hub for product development, digitally disseminating the flow of frequent and varied information between all process functions, including engineering, product development, supply chain management, manufacturing, services and marketing, including external partners. Such an approach provides a higher level of efficiency, productivity and data intelligence, which will become increasingly critical for success in this new market.

Though there remains some reservation about the long-term viability of autonomous cars, there are reportedly several brands around the world that are expected to introduce automated models to the market. Those automakers that can ratchet up their manufacturing capabilities will be in a better position to capitalize on this emerging market that seems to be on auto pilot toward becoming reality.

>>Jason Coffman, [email protected], is managing director of the automotive industry group at Accenture.

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