WCX 2024: The Technologies That Will Define Future Mobility

WCX panelists discuss product development changes in the ‘Great Mobility Transition.'

Welcome sign at the entry to the expo hall at WCX 2024. (SAE)

The migration to vehicle electrification and autonomy is ushering in product development changes with software coding and artificial intelligence (AI) performing disruptor roles. “Innovation is very important to our industry, especially at this point where we’re going through a transformation,” Kristen Tabar, group vice president for advanced mobility R&D at Toyota Motor North America, said during SAE WCX 2024.

Speakers at the various Leadership Summits held during WCX 2024 in Detroit discussed future technologies coming to the automotive industry. (SAE)

While innovative technologies are an engineering mainstay, the success or failure of a new application depends on the customer. “It’s only effective if customers see value in it and understand that it solves a problem for them,” Tabar said during a Leadership Summit session addressing the business case for sustainable growth and innovation.

Current technology applications that resonate with customers are plentiful, yet some innovations fail to impress. The seemingly ubiquitous extra-large-sized vehicle infotainment screens certainly grab attention. However, there are also examples of digital touchscreens missing the mark from a human-machine interface perspective. “If you’re going to have something that you’re using all the time and it’s on a screen that’s three menus deep, it’s not going to be acceptable,” Andrew Moir, head of advanced mobility design for Hyundai Design North America, said during a Leadership Summit session spotlighting how technology can influence interior and exterior vehicle design.

Kurt Zielinski, whose responsibilities at American Honda Motor Co.’s Torrance, California design studio include design integration and digital content, said technology will change dramatically, especially for innovations associated with electrified vehicles, autonomous vehicles and software-defined vehicles (SDVs). “It’s very much an analogy to where cell phone technology was in the 1980s,” Zielinski said. The brick-thick cell phone of 40 years ago looked and performed much differently from today’s slim smartphone with camera and Internet capabilities. “It’s hard for us to imagine what some of the breakthroughs are going to enable, but it’s exciting to look forward to where it’s going,” Zielinski said.

New AI, new possibilities

AI is already shaking up the status quo, and Hyundai’s Moir said AI could help customers tailor their in-vehicle tastes via hyper-customization. “For instance, if the vehicle really recognizes who you are and what you like doing, then it can be so much more of an experience that’s

individualized for each person rather than based on whatever smart key you happen to have in your pocket,” Moir said.

The head of Dodge design at Stellantis, Scott Krugger, said AI can prod designers to think differently. “It’s kind of a bit of a disruptor for your mind,” Krugger said, putting AI in a thought-provoker context. However, Honda’s Zielinski said it’s important to tread into AI territory with a bit of caution because automakers will not want unintended outcomes, such as AI gleaning and then revealing future plans that haven’t been made public.

SDVs define progress

Today’s digital technology is gaining momentum as the behind-the-scenes controller of vehicle functions with bold SDV imprints from start-up automakers. One example is the Lucid Air, an all-electric luxury sedan from Newark, California-headquartered Lucid Motors.

According to Michael Bell, Lucid Motors’ senior vice president of digital, the Air — which made its U.S. market debut in 2021 — has benefitted from over-the-air updates. “We’ve done well over 100 software updates, mostly relating to new features, since we shipped the car,” Bell said during a Leadership Summit session on SDVs.

Speakers at Leadership Summits at WCX 2024 in Detroit addressed sometimes packed crowds on the show floor. (SAE)

According to Bell, more than 90% of the Air’s electronic control units (ECUs) are upgradeable, whether from vendors or built in-house. A gigabyte Ethernet connection replaces a significant amount of wiring harnesses, saving money and weight. “And once the signal is on the Ethernet bus, anybody can listen to it, anybody can read it,” Bell said.

For start-ups, the must-do-it-this-way that haunts many legacy automakers is essentially removed from the product development equation. “We’re in a good place right now, and frankly, we see that as an advantage because it is difficult – if you’ve not done this before – to wrap your arms around the complexities involved,” Bell said about developing an SDV.

According to Steve Tengler, vice president of engineering excellence at Envorso, a consulting company specializing in software and connectivity, “Some [OEMs] had a clean sheet to start with, and some are trying to do a clean sheet on the fly, kind of like threading a sewing machine while it’s running.” Product development timelines are not a hard line with SDVs. “You can have block points, or launch points, that happen continuously throughout the year,” Tengler said, underscoring a non-traditional development cycle and business strategy.

Anirvan Coomer, president and managing director of GM Ventures, said software services, EVs and autonomous technology innovations are fundamental to a sustainable automotive industry. Partnerships are the key to making emerging technology innovation endeavors successful. For example, General Motors, automotive supplier Magna and technology services/consulting company Wipro Limited announced their partnership in March 2024 to develop a business-to-business platform, SDVerse. “It’s creating an open source and inclusive approach to software development to gain efficiencies,” Coomer said.

The transition to new mobility solutions puts a strong emphasis on teamwork. “It’s the best time for members outside of our traditional fields that we’ve been using to come into this space and work with us to build these new solutions — whether that’s through partnerships or just different perspectives from new members joining our ranks,” Toyota’s Tabar said.