Commentators like to use the supposed Chinese blessing “May you live in interesting times” to describe times of great change and uncertainty. Interestingly, even the phrase itself is uncertain; while widely thought to be of ancient Chinese origin, it is neither Chinese nor ancient, being recent and made up by Westerners. That seems as good a place as any to begin discussing the auto and heavy vehicle market, which is grappling with two “interesting” trends.
First, billions of dollars are being invested in self-driving vehicle technology that will help turn our personal cars into bar cars—with us sipping cocktails while being whisked home from work. But as Senior Editor Bill Koenig points out in his excellent cover story, heavy-vehicle makers have already created fleets of self-driving vehicles, and more are on the way. In September, truck maker Navistar asked a US Senate panel to include self-driving commercial trucks in legislation designed to speed autonomous vehicles to market.
Self-driving technology would represent a huge change in the driver/vehicle relationship, but it’s not the only one. Several countries are proposing the complete replacement of the internal combustion (IC) engine with electric vehicles (EVs) to cut pollution. While that would be about as popular in the US as banning football because of head injuries, the idea is gaining traction—and potential consequences.
At the Frankfurt Auto Show, Roberto Vavassori, president of the European Association of Automotive Suppliers, warned that going EV-only would be a huge win for China, South Korea and Japan, which dominate EV battery production. European automakers pay $5000–$8000 to China for every EV battery, he said, while calling for European companies to develop new battery cells, as well as more efficient engines and synthetic fuels in order to save the IC engine.
For metalworking firms, EVs will dramatically change the market for machine tools—and the tooling and workholding used in them, according to a report by Editor Emeritus Jim Sawyer from the Heller Tech Days event in July. While global light vehicle production will reach 120 million in 2030 versus 90 million in 2017, EVs do not require machining of engine blocks, heads, crankshafts and cam shafts, and transmissions will be less complex. As a result, electric powertrains require less than 20% of the metalcutting of IC powertrains. So, for auto part makers and their suppliers, the coming decades will be interesting times indeed.