Cars of Today and Tomorrow… How is the Automotive Sector Evolving?

What are the main trends influencing the automotive sector? What will the car of the future look like? We spoke about this and more with Paolo Forneris, CEO of Cecomp, a company that has been making designer dreams reality for more than 30 years, as well as possessing a styling center and research and development arms for car manufacturers around the world.

by Silvia Crespi and Fabrizio Garnero

The automotive sector has always been one of the most innovative areas of manufacturing. What are the driving factors for incoming innovation?
In my opinion three are the main drivers: connectivity between vehicles and between vehicle and infrastructure (which will soon be enabled by 5G networks), extending the range of responsive and smart functionalities; autonomous driving (a goal that will be reached soon although technology, standards and user’s feelings still have a long way to go); electric propulsion which causes old and new players to try their hands at.
Beside the historical names in automotive manufacturing that are already working at electric platforms, and will continue to do so, there are multi-national groups who had never been involved with this field, the big telephone companies, for instance. These newcomers, mostly in the Far East, enjoy access to both advanced technology and copious resources, and are investing a great deal of capital in this alternative form of mobility.
Cecomp has been involved in various “new mobility” projects, one example being that
of our collaboration with the Bollorè group, a leader in the electric transport field and one of the first groups to get heavily involved in it. Another is the Icona Nucleus concept, a self-driving, electric vehicle designed by Icona, a company of which Cecomp is both founder and shareholder.

Concerning timing, what are the possible roll outs and barriers to widespread entry in the market? What is the situation in Italy?
Timing is not easy to predict because several factors have to be considered. First of all, the cost of electric vehicles is still too high for them to really create a natural market. Their production is still very much linked to the convenience of CAFE standards and their sale is still linked to the incentives. Secondly, the availability of batteries now and in the near future will be an important issue. Another issue is infrastructure, so the question of national system is what makes the difference. Some countries are heavily investing in such infrastructure and will be able to implement new technologies concerning mobility before others. Pollution can be another factor (China being an example) that would force a country’s hand to make a change. Another important aspect is that of environmental awareness… this is particularly well represented in Nordic countries who have been investing in electric technology for years. Last but not least, let’s not forget that investment in the design and production of endothermic engines is huge and pays for itself in the long term, so there is a natural resistance to interrupting sales before the expected return on investment is achieved. Here in Italy, there are various problems to contend with and infrastructure is at the top of the list. Some cities have made great progress, Turin is a good example, where electric mobility has improved a lot. This is a situation which can be copied in other cities. Growth, especially in fleet vehicles, is rapid right now. Over the coming years I foresee hybrid vehicles taking over long distance journeys and electric ones for urban trips.

Car sharing and long term leasing are still widespread…
I am convinced that cars of small to medium size will be increasingly be used under car sharing systems, while the so called “family” vehicle will have hybrid technology.
The cultural factor should not be underestimated either. For Italian people, car ownership has long been a must and is a kind of status symbol. But times are changing…. the current generation considers car sharing as a viable option and I believe this ethos will continue to grow, especially in urban contexts.

In terms of electric motors, is car design changing?
The development of electric propulsion has already impacted the layout of the vehicle… starting from the most important part of the electric vehicle, the battery pack. Evolution of this aspect is extremely rapid both in terms of its size and capacity: packs are getting smaller but have growing autonomy. These days, a pack can function for 7/8 years with autonomy of 250 km.
Chassis design is now based around the battery pack, the battery is now an integral part of vehicle structure, in fact, car bodies can now integrate all motor types, endothermic, hybrid and electric.
On top of this, electric motors are much smaller than a traditional motor and the number of components is drastically reduced, opening up new possibilities in vehicle design.

How are production processes and organizational models inside factories evolving?
It is a very broad question that has different answers depending on the markets. Thanks to government incentives, Industry 4.0 has become part of many factory layouts, contributing to new machinery being adopted able to revolutionize many processes. Many companies have taken advantage of tax breaks to modernize their organization.
Looking in detail at production technology which has led to process change, laser technology undoubtedly leads the way and has continued to expand over recent years. At Cecomp, the first laser technology was installed in 2005 for sheet metal cutting and welding. Additive Manufacturing began in the same period, initially in the styling department to then cross over into the production process area. In 2005, the company acquired its first rapid prototype design device and today many pieces can be manufactured and mounted in series using additive manufacturing. This can be both for metal parts as well as plastic ones as with AM, costs of machinery reset are almost eliminated. Another factor to consider is machinery cost, which is rapidly dropping.
Today the process begins in the engineering department, from design itself. Any piece to be produced using additive manufacturing must be conceived with this mindset. This is why designers and mechanical engineers need to work in close collaboration and require “shared” skills.

High resistance steel and aluminium are increasingly used in vehicle production. Are other hi-tech materials coming into picture?
The trend is undoubtedly looking toward the implementation of high performance materials and aluminium is certainly one of these dominating the automotive field. Electric vehicle production is pushing manufacturers toward factories able to process and develop the components necessary. The same can be said of materials used, where lightness is one of the priorities. I am referring exactly to high resistance steel and aluminium. We have a plant dedicated to part production for chassis of our Premium vehicle range made in aluminium. They are working on three shifts, 7 days a week. The plant had been conceived chiefly for low production numbers, but aluminium is now being increasingly used in mid range vehicles as well. At equivalent size, aluminium bodywork can weigh up to 30% less than its counterpart in steel. The lighter the vehicle, the greater its efficiency and autonomy. The opportunity to increase the battery capacity also helps in this regard.

How big a role does design play in consumer choices? What future scenarios are expected?
Driving a stunning vehicle has always been a dream and continues to be so. But new stimuli are coming through from the market. New vehicles will be aesthetic, continuing to feature the comfort and safety they have always enjoyed while services inside the vehicle will take on increasing importance. Here we are talking about assisted breaking, sensors and so on. What has been an option in the past will become standard all the way up to self driving vehicles… At the motor show in Geneva last year, we carried out an experiment with our design company Icona. At the show we presented “Nucleus”, a shuttle more than a vehicle, including an elegant lounge area, self driving… a travelling living room! Will this be the vehicle of the future? We believe so, we believe that this type of vehicle will have its own market share.