That’s a cool idea: 21 innovations from 2021


The chaos of changing market trends, new technologies, inventory crises and plain old heated competition had at least one positive outcome this year: It sparked new ideas.

Manufacturers, retailers, suppliers, vendors and engineers brought some clever solutions to the marketplace in 2021. Across the auto industry, businesses found better ways to win customers, produce parts or respond to market opportunities.

Here are some of the innovations that emerged or found new applications in the industry in 2021.

Volvo intends to commercialize a new steel- making technology that promises to eliminate a major pollutant from its traditional list of ingredients — coking coal.

The Hydrogen Breakthrough Ironmaking Technology, or Hybrit — developed by steelmaker SSAB, iron ore producer LKAB and energy company Vattenfall — replaces coking coal with hydrogen. Traditionally, oxygen is extracted from iron ore using coal to derive pure iron, an essential ingredient in making steel. But that high-energy process emits carbon dioxide, and the auto industry — particularly in Europe — is under pressure to reduce CO2.

Through Hybrit, hydrogen is extracted from water via electrolysis and then used to remove the oxygen from the ore. The byproduct: water, not greenhouse emissions.

General Motors is among the companies embracing a factory tool that bears a tiny similarity to Robocop. GM has been experimenting for months with exoskeletons, which are mechanical wearables that transfer upper-body strain across the hips of the wearer when they reach overhead while holding parts or tools. The idea isn’t really to make them superhuman. It is to lessen the daily physical wear and tear on people. Workers who wore the gear in a study reported improvements in their quality of life outside of work, and in their posture and energy levels. One worker said that, prior to using an exoskeleton, he was often too tired to do housework at the end of a workweek. He said he now has enough energy for chores at home.

Design engineers at Porsche Engineering’s labs in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, have begun using gaming engines to give them a freer and faster hand at creating new models, components and vehicle control systems.

Gaming engines are software tools used by video game creators to develop new 2D and 3D graphics products. They allow designers in the gaming industry to quickly run through multiple iterations of an idea and test it with different variables. Porsche’s effort is an example of a common technology from one realm being applied to improve the workplace in another.

Porsche’s engineers are using the tools to visualize vehicle changes and develop new automated-driving systems, as well as to create a virtual reality vehicle configurator for customers to use in Porsche dealership showrooms.

To overcome this year’s inventory shortages, Aschenbach Automotive Group of Frederick, Md., established a new funnel for fresh vehicles, reaching into South Florida with a buying center that could ship autos back to its five dealerships in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

The buying center, known as BizCar, is in West Palm Beach with two full-time employees who scour the Florida market for leads. Aschenbach’s individual dealerships already do their own buying in the course of business, but the addition of an out-of-state purchasing center provides extra inventory and profit potential.

Tesla showcased a new idea in steering wheels that features a stalkless design that uses sensors to determine which way a driver “wants” to go. The concept appeared as part of a redesign of its Model S sedan and Model X crossover.

The steering wheel has the same U-like shape found in many race cars. It has two scrolls, similar to what’s on the Model 3 and Model Y today, but will incorporate force touch buttons to activate turn signals, high beams, the horn, Autopilot, windshield wipers and voice commands. But the biggest change is the elimination of the drive-mode stalk which typically controls park, reverse, neutral and drive functions. The automaker plans to rely on the technology that powers its Autopilot driver-assist system to shift gears.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said on Twitter that the car will “guess drive direction.” If the front of the vehicle is facing a garage wall, it will detect this and automatically shift to reverse once the driver presses the brake pedal. And if it guesses wrong, the driver can override the command using the vehicle’s touch screen.

The trend toward signing documents digitally — as opposed to requiring pen-in-hand “wet signatures” — was already gaining traction outside the auto industry. Then the onset of COVID-19 gave rise to the practice among some dealers out of necessity. But retailers are now embracing the idea as a way to please and delight their customers.

“It’s a more convenient customer experience,” said Larry Zinn, general manager of Warren Henry Auto Group in Florida. “You know, it is touchless, which is what our consumers want.”

A high-volume store might have 3,000 customers pass through the service center in a month. And each visit requires three or four pages to be signed by the customer.

Scott Smith, president of Smith Automotive Group near Atlanta, said his four stores have shifted to electronic signatures in most departments. There’s also a secondary benefit: The storage and security of paperwork with wet-signature documents is a major cost for retailers. Digital documents are a potential overhead reduction.

In response to Volkswagen’s worries that producing a high-volume electric ID4 crossover would be more time-consuming than a traditional vehicle, supplier Dürr devised a way to avoid having to off-line each vehicle to install its side windows.

Dürr designed a process for VW’s assembly line in Zwickau, Germany, with a new gluing technology that can install the windows in a flow process. As the factory line moves, robots guide the side window to the application tower for glue. The robot is then synced up with the vehicle being produced so that the exact position of the body is in line for installation with an accuracy of a few tenths of a millimeter. Most importantly, the production line does not have to stop and start to allow the installation to take place.

Online chats with auto dealerships can sometimes cause a shopper to disengage and go elsewhere. Retailers are typically so determined to capture the lead’s name and contact information that they alienate the person and lose the lead.

Rydell Auto Center of Grand Forks in North Dakota decided to skip that step. Instead, clicking on the site’s “Ask an expert” button leads to a live employee on average in less than a minute. The dealer realized that the last thing a person wants to do when shopping is to fill out a form, and then wait for the store to contact them at the store’s convenience.

Rydell estimates it was successfully connecting with about two-thirds of customers who submitted a lead form, but is now connecting with close to 80 percent of browsers without asking for the personal information upfront.

Bosch and Daimler Trucks North America addressed two pressing industry issues with one technological solution. Bosch adapted its SAE Level 2 Active Lane Assist to a Daimler Class 8 commercial truck to help improve safety. The system uses a multipurpose camera’s lane-detection algorithm for vehicle position recognition and prediction within a driving lane. The technology works with a truck’s steering system to actively maintain position within its highway lane, without driver involvement at some speeds.

But the driving aide, which earned Bosch and Daimler a 2021 Automotive News PACE Award for innovation partnership, also addresses one of the economy’s biggest challenges: a shortage of truck drivers. Daimler believes making big rigs easier to drive and safer will make the job more appealing, and will give trucking companies a product to help them retain drivers.

Recruiting dealership employees has been tough lately. Wooing enthusiastic young people into the world of selling cars has long been a challenge, but today, job candidates tend to view showroom sales as less than ideal.

To fill open slots, the Philadelphia-area Fred Beans Automotive Group has made auto selling a little less intimidating by offering a guaranteed straight salary of $50,000 a year. The offer is reassuring to job seekers who might find the idea of living on commissions daunting. The retailer reports that new sales personnel eventually see that they can make more than $50,000 on commissions and often request to move off the straight salary.

When GM decided to redeploy its CAMI Assembly plant in Ontario to take advantage of a rapidly changing product plan, GM engineers came up with a quick solution to retool the factories on a shorter timetable than normal.

In order to jump on a new contract from FedEx, GM instructed its tooling supplier Kuka to handle initial production of the new EV600 electric commercial van at a plant in Michigan.

Kuka is building fewer than 500 of the EV600 models by hand. After that, the supplier will ship the equipment needed to make the EV600 to CAMI. The workaround allowed GM to continue production of the Chevrolet Equinox at CAMI for longer and still begin full EV600 production there in November 2022 — about a year earlier than originally planned.

Vehicle technology is getting so complicated that what consumers really need is somebody who can answer a thousand questions. Porsche Cars of Main Line in suburban Philadelphia came to that conclusion and now has a full-time employee dedicated to one thing: answering customer questions.

Dealer Robert DiStanislao created a full-time position dedicated to helping customers. The answer man is a 20-something former Midas mechanic who works across all departments answering queries from sales and service clients. He takes phone calls and answers emails and texts 24 hours a day, usually about 50 a day, ranging from how to activate the auto high-beam assist feature to deciphering error codes.

When he can’t resolve a customer concern remotely, he hits the road, visiting owners at their home or office, or traveling across the state if necessary. DiStanislao says the extra effort is helping the store sell more vehicles and improve its customer satisfaction scores.

Pandemic restrictions played havoc with the routine communications among vehicle designers, product planners and the coatings suppliers who normally journey back and forth to styling studios to work out the exact colors for new vehicles and features. The constraints inspired a new approach to the work, and a new digital tool from supplier PPG.

PPG’s new digital styling program allows project managers in separate locations to work in a shared workspace while still seeing the same precise and subtle color changes.

The approach turned out to have additional benefits. Changes can be executed quicker and vehicle programs can move faster, since suppliers don’t have to get on a plane or into a car to travel from location to location.

Faurecia introduced its Perceptual Display Platform Vision, giving automakers a display panel that adapts its content to a light level that is personalized to a driver’s unique vision.

The technology was developed with input from physiologists working with Faurecia’s Canadian software startup IRYStec, unlocking the mechanics of the human eye to determine how much ambient light a driver needs in order to see better.

The system, which won Faurecia a 2021 Automotive News PACE Award, can improve visibility by 30 percent, in addition to reducing display heat and power consumption.

When the scripted “word tracks” of its online sales pitches proved ineffective, Germain Toyota of Naples, Fla., decided to go off script. The sales staff was empowered to simply communicate with shoppers, talking with shoppers about whatever is on their mind, answering questions and listening.

It’s a simple idea, but online selling usually is more rigid and follows a set path. Under the old system, a customer asking what a trade was worth might have been required to test drive a vehicle first. Or an employee would be required to fill out paperwork before a customer could visit the finance and insurance office.

No more. “We just roll with them,” General Manager Brian Kramer said. As a result, F&I sales have increased, boosting per-vehicle profitability.

Filling service tech openings isn’t easy. So Faulkner Automotive Group in Philadelphia came up with a strategy to enlarge its pool of candidates.
The 28-store group funded the creation of an automotive technician training school at a local inner-city Catholic high school. The first year of the course is book learning, followed by two years of hands-on experience, paired with a mentor from a Faulkner dealership.
Faulkner intended the effort as philanthropic but knew it would also help the company. According to the program’s timetable, approximately 20 trained techs a year will graduate with their Pennsylvania state certification starting in 2026. Faulkner can’t hire all 20 a year, but every new tech will be needed somewhere.

Mercedes-Benz has made use of fingerprint scanning to activate up to 800 personalized driver profiles in new Mercedes-Benz vehicles, including the top-of-the-line S-Class sedan and its battery-powered variant, the EQS. Now Mercedes has gone a step beyond, using the scans to conduct business without distracting the driver.

The automaker’s Daimler Mobility unit has partnered with Visa to use driver fingerprints to verify secure digital payments from the vehicle. That will allow a driver to make purchases without the need for voice commands or PINs, with the fingerprint acting as an electronic signature with no further security requirements or fumbling for billfolds at 60 mph.

After seeking guidance from its female managers on how to improve its dealerships for employees, customers and the community, Fowler Automotive Group got a list of recommendations. One of them was to offer private areas for women to pump milk or breastfeed their babies.

Fowler has installed lactation pods in each of its eight dealerships, placed in showrooms and near customer waiting areas. They measure 4 feet by 8 feet and have seating, a fold-down table, an electrical outlet and a locking door.

While the pods provide a private space, women are encouraged to nurse wherever they are comfortable in the dealerships. The retailer reports that it is getting positive feedback on social media.

No one is suggesting that drifting is a safe thing to do in a car or a wise thing to do to a set of tires. But in certain enthusiast circles, drifting is a sport, a thrill or even a style statement.

But what will happen to drifting in an era of electric powertrains with automated driving features designed to keep occupants safe from surprises?

Luxury brand Genesis is going there. Its GV60, the first battery-electric Genesis on a dedicated platform, will offer a Drift Mode that engages software settings for power and braking to allow for a controlled slide. Normally, safety software would rein in a slide, but Genesis says the feature is for EV drivers “who are looking for a more dynamic experience.”

EyeGage, an Atlanta startup focused on the transportation and industrial sector, has developed a system for improving workplace safety by detecting when employees are impaired on the job.

It works by screening employees’ eyes as they enter the workplace or step into a specific job, such as operating heavy machinery or driving a delivery truck. Scanning the eyes of subjects can detect whether they are under the influence of a given drug or alcohol, or possibly suffering from an illness, based on the size of the pupil, the color of the whites of the eye, how the eyes are responding or whether they are twitching.

What an employer does with the detections will be up to the employer.

Customers on some Miami Uber and Lyft vehicles are enjoying a market test of personalized entertainment and even in-vehicle back massages from the passenger-experience company Ivee.

The system consists of an infotainment screen and a responsive seat system, developed by Brose, that is a back cushion that provides a vibrating massage and is equipped with speakers and haptic feedback capability that pulsates with the media that’s playing. The passenger can enable the features by tapping on the Ivee display or speaking to it.

Ivee’s assumption is that coming generations of robotaxis and self-driving shuttles will have roomier interiors that allow ride customers to personalize their lighting, infotainment and seating configurations.

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