JUNE 2019 IN

Redesigning Cars After They Are Out on the Road

Modern, more modular design approaches make it easier for the design of a car to change even after the car has left the factory.

The usual path to a newer design for a product you own is to buy a replacement, but not all products work this way. Airplanes, as one example, are regularly upgraded with new features long after they have been put into service. Could the same approach work for cars? It probably could, now that electric car designs have taken away the engine block that previously was the biggest design constraint in a car. In a fuel-burning car, the entire car is designed around the mass and vibration of the engine block. The design compromises that are required limit the use of standard parts and interfaces. There is no comparable constraint in the design of an electric car, making it more likely that an existing car could be upgraded to a newer design just by replacing some of the parts.

Tesla made a point of this recently with the announcement of new features intended to help a car stay in its driving lane. The new features will be built in to new cars in the factory but can easily be added to cars already on the road, in some cases with only a software update. The lane departure avoidance feature is a small change, but more demanding upgrades are sure to follow, and not just from Tesla. As the most obvious example, when a car’s battery wears out after a decade or two of driving, it is unlikely to be replaced with a battery of the original design. Instead, the car owner will probably opt for an up-to-date battery, even though that also means replacing a few dozen of the supporting components.

Design changes have long been implemented in the field for safety recalls. Engineers design not only the improved parts that will solve a safety problem, but an installation procedure that can be carried out in any service department by mechanics of ordinary skill and training. The safety recall is usually an expensive proposition compared to the design change at the factory, mainly because of the disassembly work required to remove a part that must be replaced. With the unavoidable vibration that any vehicle experiences, parts have to be attached tightly, so this disassembly will surely continue to be a demanding process.

At this point I can’t imagine all the kinds of design changes that will roll out to already-manufactured cars. Some changes will make a car more efficient, while others will make it more capable. Some will change the appearance of a car, but most will be all but invisible.

One of the biggest obstacles to upgrading a car is the habitual expectation that a car, once purchased, will stay essentially the same. To an automaker, this expectation may be seen as a marketing challenge. Given the way cars are often financed with five-year loans, automakers may develop upgrade packages specifically for car owners who have recently paid off their loans. I expect to see packages that highlight the most appealing design improvements of the last five years and that can be financed with a payment plan that runs another one or two years.

Another form of upgrade will be intended to make a car feel new again. This might include replacing the seats, wheels, steering wheel, dashboard panels, and other components that are especially visible from the point of view of the driver. When cars last twenty years or longer, drivers may be looking for a shortcut to the new-car feeling.

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