Shape of things to come05 March 2011
Tony Lewin talks with TRW's Matt Roney about the megatrends shaping future vehicle technology
As the man responsible for product planning at the world's eleventh largest automotive components supplier, Matt Roney exerts above average influence on the technologies that go into the vehicles pouring out of international car plants. His job is to make technology happen – not in the laboratory, nor for just a handful of wealthy buyers in top premium automobiles, but for the vast mass of motorists driving everyday cars, on an everyday budget.
At TRW, the rule is simple: vanity projects are out, as is costly fundamental research, pushing the scientific envelope just for the sake of it. Instead, the focus is firmly on the level-headed selection of sensible technologies that deliver maximum value for millions of customers. The prime example of this, and the foundation for TRW's rise to its current prominence, is electric power steering (EPS): it's more effective to save a couple of grams of CO2 across a 2-million unit platform, argues Roney, than to halve – at great engineering cost – the emissions of a luxury limousine that only a handful of people will be able to afford.
While acknowledging the importance of what he describes as TRW's "massive push" to improve fuel efficiency, he prefers to hold back and evaluate before putting TRW's name to every initiative that comes along. Take electric rear axles, for instance, currently in vogue as a handy way of turning a front-drive model into an eco-friendly, all-wheel drive hybrid.
"It's interesting, from a technology standpoint," he notes, "and it includes many things that
we are good at, such as electromechanical, and electro-hydraulic actuation and control systems. But we're not an axle or differential or gearset manufacturer, and the volumes and fitment rates of those technologies are still fairly small. They're niche-type applications – as opposed to the 75% of the world's vehicles which have EPS or the 80% that have electronic brake controls."
Indeed, the percentage test is a theme that crops up at regular intervals in conversation with Roney – nowhere more so than in braking, the area that, alongside EPS, forms the core of TRW's business with the world's automakers. TRW developed the electro-hydraulic braking system that allows the Chevrolet Volt to blend regenerative electric braking with conventional friction brakes. "This Slip Control Boost system [for the Volt] was our first excursion into the market," he says. "It was designed for a full hybrid system – a vehicle that's capable of running on an electric motor alone. The real challenge for the future is that not all hybrids are the same: they range from stop-start micro hybrids, all the way up to a plug-in hybrid or EV."
The dilemma, he explains, is how to engage with a model range that is, say, 90% internal combustion engine and 10% hybrid. "How do you approach the technology application on that vehicle? Do you design something unique for the 10% or do you have something that works across all of it?"
An added complication in the mix is that not all IC engines are the same either. Gasoline direct injection, for instance, does not provide a handy source of vacuum to power the brake booster.
"There's a tipping point coming in the next five or 10 years," Roney predicts. "This is where we will see a crossover, when these low vacuum and no-vacuum engines (such as those with stop-start) will begin to exceed the volume of the traditional multi-point injection engines in the market. That tipping point will coincide with a next step, in terms of technology solutions, that will be affordable enough to cover that range of volumes.
"To put the electro-hydraulic system onto the 90% of the vehicles that don't need it is very cost prohibitive," he continues. "But, if you can develop a solution that's cost effective enough for the majority of that 90%, as well as working for the 10% – now you've got a value proposition that works."
Roney is understandably coy about divulging details of what is clearly a highly significant development. "What we're focusing on is future-proofed and hybrid and low-vacuum proofed solutions that allow you the opportunity to run without vacuum, with or without regen, to develop a base system architecture that works across the range," he says. "We've got it."
Electric parking brakes are another technology that TRW did much to establish in the last few years, and have become a familiar fitment on D and E segment European vehicles. Now, states Roney, the focus is on increasing their breadth of application, moving them downwards into the C and B segments and capitalising on an as-yet unexploited advantage – that of low weight.
"In the current climate of weight reduction, we see good potential to push this not just in the smaller car arena, where EPB can save around 5kg, but on bigger SUVs where the saving can be as much as 15kg."
A third area where the EPB is attractive is that of residual drag reduction, with a motor on the caliper (made of aluminium) actively retracting the pads from the brake rotor after each park brake application. Every little improvement such as this helps fuel efficiency, he notes.
While the world of foundation brakes is on the verge of its revolution, that revolution has already taken place in the arena of steering. The transformation brought about by EPS has been both sudden – from a handful of applications in the B segment a decade ago to today's position of dominance – and far reaching. EPS has opened the door to a host of safety and convenience technologies that would have been impossible with traditional hydraulic systems. Perhaps the best known of these convenience functions is that of auto park, where the driver only has to operate the accelerator and brake in a reverse-park manoeuvre, leaving the steering to computer control. Now, however, with TRW into its next generation of EPS, the possibilities of other types of intervention in the steering have expanded exponentially.
"Already in production is the Lancia Delta, with our lane-keeping system. The camera detects the lane markings and our EPS system provides the torque overlay to keep the vehicle in its lane."
Beyond that, there is the capability for more dynamic functions, such as oversteer control, blending stability control through ESP with steering control, with oversteer and torque steer compensation. "All that suite of features has been done. We have systems that can completely steer the vehicle in its lane, but the Fiat application is a bit more subtle and works well, in terms of driver acceptance."
TRW's most sophisticated EPS to date is the belt-drive system on the new Ford Focus family of platforms. Still more features are built into the second and third-generation EPS systems, which, he says, have been sold to other manufacturers and will appear within the next year or two.
Among the new functions are automatic wind drift compensation, 'nibble' compensation to deal with out-of-balance tyres, and torque and angle sensors that can detect when the driver is becoming drowsy, sounding warnings or applying a vibration to the steering wheel to restore his attention.
In theory, full collision avoidance is also possible through intervention in the EPS. Yet, says Roney, concerns about consumer acceptance and reliability mean these "dramatic" uses of torque overlay are unlikely to become reality. "All the building blocks are there, right the way up to fully autonomous driving. But I don't expect autonomous vehicles any time in our lifetimes. What I would expect is a gradual journey towards more semi-autonomy for the vehicle: freeway driving, for example, could be almost entirely autonomous."
Next-generation versions of today's technologies will almost allow drivers to take a nap while the vehicle runs on the motorway. "It will keep you in the lane, it will keep you a safe distance from the vehicle in front, it will bring you to a full stop, if needed. But in urban driving, the number of variables is such that the driver's attention is required."
Asked why TRW appears to be less proactive when it comes to the technologies of electrification and hybridisation currently commanding so much attention in the industry, he says he is keeping a watching brief. Electric corner modules, drive motors and axles all face significant hurdles, he points out, and are still too niche to figure large on the TRW radar. "Our focus is the majority of vehicles," he reiterates, hinting at the same time that this is a gap in the corporate portfolio and that collaboration with other companies could be a solution.
"We've got our eye on a couple of interesting applications," he reveals somewhat enigmatically, not saying whether he is alluding to individual technical developments or complete companies.
A case, perhaps, for Roney to flip his business card over to reveal the second, and no less important, title
in his job description – business development director, responsible for corporate mergers and acquisitions, joint ventures and alliances.
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