By on February 15, 2007

sae_logo222.jpgAlmost without exception, our current carmakers were founded by engineers. The men behind Buick, BMW, Cadillac, Chrysler, Ford, Jeep, Dodge, Mercedes, Porsche and Saab (to name but a few) all possessed tremendous engineering abilities. Long before the styling gurus like Harley Earl and Virgil Exner rose to preeminence, long before Harvard MBA’s assumed corporate control, car companies rose or fell depending on the quality of their engineering talent.

If you wanted to call these engineers a brotherhood, then The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) would be their conclave. In 1905, thirty automobile engineers (the word automotive was yet to be coined) gathered in New york City to form the SAE. Their mission: to protect and expand their collective skills. Since its birth, the SAE has included such luminaries as Henry Ford (their first Vice President) and Charles Kettering (inventor of the self-starter).

Over the next 105 years, the SAE has grown to include 85k members, working in 97 countries. In 1915, the SAE founded a collegiate branch to nurture new engineering talent. The SAE now claims over 17k student members in over 400 chapters, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. To encourage student participation, the SAE offers awards, scholarships, loans and internships to deserving students.

As part of their SAE education, stateside members must create a technically advanced automobile from scratch. Working as a team over a year, they formulate a business plan, fabricate parts, test them, and assemble a complete vehicle. The completed work is subject to a series of dynamic tests in SAE sponsored competitions. This competition is not for the faint of heart; only the most robust designs are capable of running the SAE's gauntlet without garnering a barrage of highly pointed professional criticism. 

The exercise immerses the SAE student in a microcosm of real world automotive production: a cocktail of project management, technical challenges, and business demands — all that's missing from the experience is the dead hand of unionism and the enforced entropy of corporate beancounters. The end products of this endeavor fall into three predefined categories: a Formula-one style race car, a Baja-style off-roader and/or an alternative fuel vehicle based on an existing passenger car chassis.

While the F1 car and Baja projects start life as metal tubing and a dump truck full of creativity, the SAE alternative fuel vehicle must look and perform as close to the original platform as possible. All work must be completed within a limited budget. Factor in the time constraints of regular college coursework, and it’s clear the SAE’s elders have devised a proper pressure cooker.

Many SAE groups participate in a single event, others dive into multiple projects. Students at the University of Texas at Austin think big. In their "spare" time, UT’s SAE students also work on a pair of vintage rides: 1937 Chevrolet sedans in both stock and hot rod trim. These rides aren't an SAE sanctioned project; it’s a straight-up grassroots engineering gig. They are a rip-snorting tribute to engineering fundamentals, riding on a modern day suspension and motivated by a high performance powertrain.

The vintage rides’ inherent hotness rubs off on the more mundane projects and strengthens the group's image to potential sponsors and alumni. No matter how a UT SAE student pimps their technologically advanced Minivan or Crossover, they don’t stand out from other tricked out collegiate carriages. Put another way, the rods become halo cars for engineering nerddom.

With GM's Death Watches, Ford's Way Forwards and DCX’ Plan X From Outer Space, parts and sponsorship from domestic manufacturers (the SAE’s traditional benefactor) are getting thin on the ground. With a smaller project budget and limited access to the latest technology, how does today’s student engineering team git ‘er done? The answer isn't in a student handbook. Welcome to Las Vegas, baby. 

In the quest for sponsorship, the UT SAE chapter packed-up their (work in progress) '37 Chevy hot-rod and carted it to Sin City SEMA. The students figured they’d find sympathetic souls at the world’s largest automotive aftermarket convention. And so they did. Once the fraternal order of grease monkeys caught sight of their handiwork, once they experienced the SAE engineers’ boundless enthusiasm, the sponsorship money and donations rolled in. 

Engineers are not in charge of Detroit anymore. The days when startling mechanical innovation and sheer bloody minded engineering excellence determined an automaker’s fate are long gone. In fact, it’s fair to say The Big 2.5’s mechanical talent probably spend most of their working lives trying to solve problems pre-compromised by management greed, arrogance and incompetence.

But if the UT SAE chapter’s experience proves anything, it’s that American engineering's pioneering spirit is alive and well. As SEMA’s tuners discovered, not all student engineers wear pocket protectors and fold at the first sign of bureaucratic intransigence. Today’s engineers are working for their day in the sun. Meanwhile, they drive hot rods. Hell yeah.

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

52 Comments on “The Society of Automotive Engineers Embrace Their Inner Nerd...”


  • avatar
    86er

    Thank you for this article Sajeev.

    Commence the thawing of Ed Cole, post haste.

  • avatar
    Sid Vicious

    From my perspective, I have to agree with the gist of this article. All of the interns in my office hail from an educational institution in Flint, Mi.

    Though they know the domestic industry is a dead man walking, they still love to hack around with their toys. I’ve posted before that these guys have a bunch of GM EV stuff (both EV1′s and Electric S10′s) that they are doing really cool things with.

    Their personal rides are an unbelievable assortment of Frankenstein oddball vehicles. Who remembers the XR7 Cougar with the Thunderbird SC underpinnings? Fiero with the gas powertrain in back and Electric S10 powertrain in the front?

    They are talking now about a 24 hour endurance race in California where your entry cannot have cost more than $500 excluding safety equipment. What fun!

    Sadly, many will not work in the automotive industry when they move on from school. Plain and simple it’s just no fun anymore. Best to keep cars as a hobby. I couldn’t agree more.

  • avatar
    amclint

    Sounds pretty awesome, engineers rock! Granted I do software but I always wanted to get into the electrical/mechanical/automotive side.

    Some day I’ll pick up my 240Z V8 project again…that’s my kind of hotrod! (Supercharged LS1 with a 6 speed tremec trans, ala Darius Z)

  • avatar
    Sajeev Mehta

    This one is for all the underappreciated engineers out there. Maybe one of these days you’ll get the glory back. :-)

    All of the interns in my office hail from an educational institution in Flint, Mi.

    Kettering? That’s one of the powerhouse institutions for engineers.

    Their personal rides are an unbelievable assortment of Frankenstein oddball vehicles. Who remembers the XR7 Cougar with the Thunderbird SC underpinnings?

    Sure do. I have the one with Tbird Turbo Coupe underpinnings. I know the feeling.

    Just so everyone knows, I am an SAE Alumnus and I highly recommend joining the organization at the collegiate or professional level. The stuff you get access to is simply amazing.

    Too bad I didn’t want to be an engineer when I grow up. :-)

  • avatar
    NICKNICK

    Being an engineer seems like a good idea when you read about it, but actually having a job kinda sucks sometimes. Bean counters are wing-clipping dream-squashers. But at the same time, if we all got to work on our pet projects, we’d bankrupt the company.

    A lot of engineers where I work play with cars as a hobby. Engines are very incestuous around these parts–they are constantly swapped among friends. My future project is to find another 1.8T golf or jetta and put that engine and transaxle in my GTI…where the backseat used to be.

    Eight cylinders, 3.6 liters, twin turbo (ok, not really), all wheel drive…

  • avatar
    nutbags

    Excellent article Sajeev. I too am an SAE member although do not work in the auto industry. Realized back in the 80′s when GM layed off 30,000 employess and cut the co-op program I was in that this was not for me. It is unfortunate that these companies are not longer run by the engineers but by others – marketers, accountants, etc.
    What is also unfortunate in this country; approximately 5% of HS graduates go into any engineering program while in China it is approaching 50%. Sad, very sad.

  • avatar
    NickR

    When these bright, creative, automotive enthusiasts are back running the Big 2.5, someone please drop me a note and let me know. In the interim, can someone please tell me where the hell they are now? They can’t all be busy working on the Z06.

  • avatar

    Sid Vicious, are you talking about the 24 Hours of Lemons? Anyone can enter that race, and Jalopnik had excellent coverage of it this year.

  • avatar
    Gottleib

    We need to celebrate engineers and their achievements more along with the poets, painters and other creative folks. We owe so much to so few and little do most people know or care who provides us with the technology we use daily. Sign me up for the SAE booster club.

  • avatar
    Sid Vicious

    That would be the one! If I were only 22 again.

    I think the group I know were going to pick up a pair of Cavaliers for about $300 – one to race and one for parts.

    My personal ride would be a 1st gen RX7. The motors get real tired but just keep running. Might use more oil than gas though…

  • avatar
    David G

    I enjoyed your editorial, Sajeev. Out of curiosity, do you get to write your title or does someone else do that?

  • avatar
    SonicSteve

    Great article,

    I got my engineering degree and longed to work in the auto industry from reading about characters like Zora Arkus Duntov, John Moss and John Colletti. From my experience, i’m sad to say that these car guys are but a very small minority in the industry. Most of the people i’ve met are much more intersted in their pets than the evolution of the Corvette, or the differences between a ’67 and ’68 Camaro.

    I think there are two big issues here, firstly, the bean counters and inept management tend to stifle and hold down any ideas, and brush off logical suggestions as rubbish. Questioning the machine is frowned upon. Secondly, while I support equal opportunity, I don’t think the recruiters actively seek out car enthusiasts, as a result anyone who can slip through the generic HR questions gets the job and the paycheque, which is all they really want.

    Which reminds me, I need to renew my SAE membership

  • avatar
    guyincognito

    “The Big 2.5’s mechanical talent probably spend most of their working lives trying to solve problems pre-compromised by management greed, arrogance and incompetence.”

    Exactly! And filling out endless tracking matrixes so that the program management types and bean counters don’t have to actually do any work. Its amazing how little time the engineers actually even have to engineer the pre-compromised solution and then how many NO-people have to be fought to impliment it. It is so sad to see the brilliant engineers I know have their talents put to waste.

    Also, another group of Collegiate Automotive Engineers that should be mentioned are those that participate in the North American Solar Car Challenge, who design and build a solar powered car and then race it across the country.

    Great article Sajeev!

  • avatar
    detroit9000

    My copy of “Automotive Engineering” is half what it was when I first received it, circa 1995. I can’t help but wonder if SAE is dead. I wonder what will rise in its place?

  • avatar

    Great article Sajeev! I finished my mechanical engineering degree last year, and out of my graduating class only 1 went to work for one of the 2.5.

    I have a bunch of friends who were in F1 SAE, and were really fanatical about it. But when they graduated they took their engineering enthusiasm elsewhere. They know who wears the pants in Detriot, and its not the engineers.

  • avatar
    nmcheese

    As someone that was part of an SAE MiniBaja team at for one year (it’s a serious time commitment) it is a great opportunity to practice what you read about during your time as a Mechanical Engineering student. It takes all types of engineer, from those that are specifically good with numbers, to those that are more business oriented to secure the funding and ‘free’ parts from different sponsors. It’s also very evident come competition day which teams had the organized programs – testing, refining, testing, and more testing beats an interesting design any day. Kind of like the real world eh?

    That said there have only been a few members of the different SAE teams from my institution that went to work for major auto manufacturers. When I searched after graduation a few years ago the jobs just weren’t available, and there were far more profitable opportunities in other industries.

  • avatar
    guyincognito

    Most of the Mechanical Engineers I graduated with went to work at investment banking firms.

  • avatar
    ktm

    “Some day I’ll pick up my 240Z V8 project again…that’s my kind of hotrod! (Supercharged LS1 with a 6 speed tremec trans, ala Darius Z)”

    I am about to start my L28ET swap into my 1972 240z. I am going with the T03/T04E turbo, Megasquirt, have not decided which injectors to run yet, Pallnet rail, etc., etc. The old L24 gave up the ghost 6 months sooner than I wanted it to (I just finished refurbishing the entire braking and suspension system and the engine cracked/warped a head, blew a head gasket).

    I am an engineer by profession as well, though not a mechanical engineer. I recently went to work for a public company and could not believe that amount of justification I had to provide the accounts for the most trivial of projects. What accountants don’t understand is that it is the engineers that save the company money, not them.

  • avatar
    krick

    Sajeev – I know it’s not the main focus of your piece, but are you suggesting that engineers should be running the show?

  • avatar
    nmcheese

    guyincognito:

    Funny you mention that – the financial industry is where I am currently as well.

    Other notes:

    I’m not sure engineers should run the major auto manufacturers – many of those that I know don’t have the mindset of the average consumer. While cars like the Accord and Sonata in this country are impeccably engineered and assembled, they are not engineers’ cars – they’re dictated by market research and benefit due to that.

  • avatar
    Sajeev Mehta

    Wow! I was hoping a fair number of SAE/Engineering type-folk read the site. This one’s for you. :-)

    I enjoyed your editorial, Sajeev. Out of curiosity, do you get to write your title or does someone else do that?

    David: this one isn’t mine but I like it. Just depends on what has the most “pop.”

    Which reminds me, I need to renew my SAE membership.

    Steve, better do it. Speaking of, if you’d like to show some love to the SAE Hot Rod team, here’s the link:

    Also, another group of Collegiate Automotive Engineers that should be mentioned are those that participate in the North American Solar Car Challenge, who design and build a solar powered car and then race it across the country.

    guyincognito: I had friends in that project, mostly aerospace people. Props are in order for those fine folks too.

    I have a bunch of friends who were in F1 SAE, and were really fanatical about it. But when they graduated they took their engineering enthusiasm elsewhere. They know who wears the pants in Detriot, and its not the engineers.

    Perfectzero: Most of the F-car guys I know took jobs not directly related to the Big Three (it was the Big Three back then) and I’d agree, many of them made non-Detroit connections because of SAE.

    Sajeev – I know it’s not the main focus of your piece, but are you suggesting that engineers should be running the show?

    Krick: No, that’s not a good idea at all. Henry Ford wiped out several ventures before a wise accountant kept him in line at FoMoCo.

    But they need to be clued in to the rest of the company. Designers (stylists) engineers, beancounters, marketers, etc exist in their own worlds: when someone from the other world interferes with their lives, they resist. If everyone had a common goal (like making a really awesome sedan/coupe/SUV) and worked as a cross-functional team, we’d be much better off as a society for it.

    Ford’s used to do the whole teamwork thing back in the 1980s, and they attributed it to their fantastic success. Mulally knows the deal. Chrysler seemed to be on the same track in the early 90s, pre-DCX merger. The success and timeliness of the Viper, Ram Pickup and LH cars is proof.

    The relationship between cross-functional teamwork and financial success is rather disturbing.

  • avatar
    Sajeev Mehta

    Oh, and pictures of the ’37 Chevy Hot Rod are here. Feel free to contact them with any advice, compliments, free parts or free beer you can donate to the cause.

  • avatar
    LK

    Good article, and I agree with most of what was said.

    As an automotive engineer, one of the most depressing situations is when interns come up to me and ask my honest opinion on the industry, or what they should do when they graduate. I’ve love to be able to offer them some sort of encouragement, but in the spirit of honesty I really can’t. There are rewarding jobs out there, but they’re few and far between…and if they work in their field it’s much more likely that they’ll end up in a job that either stresses them out or bores them out of their skull.

    Plus, for an engineer to move up the ladder usually means that they do less actual engineering and spend most of their time butting heads with buyers, customers, upper management, and suppliers. That’s where I am now, and while I can protect the engineers working under me from much of the BS it tends to wear on you after a while…it’s not a good sign when you start to look forward to going home in the evening and cleaning horse stalls. Actually, when I think of it, dealing with horse manure isn’t that much different from my day job…though the horse manure doesn’t talk back as much, and has never asked me to cut costs.

  • avatar
    Voice of Sweden

    Well, reading all the comments here it’s not difficult to understand why the US car industry is i such a sad state. Evidently you can’t let MBA*-people run car companies.

    * well, only if they’re engineers too.

  • avatar
    krick

    Sajeev: Well said. My sentiments exactly.

    Voice of Sweden: That’s not at all what is being said. See my initial comment and Sajeev’s response.

  • avatar
    philbailey

    Use the phrase “grease monkey” one more time, and I’ll send all my automotive TECHNICIANS over to your house to have a chat with you. Grease monkey is an insult to a group of clever, resourceful, physically fit men and occasionally, women, who get rained on in winter and perspire profusely in summer and love what they do – they have to, because the pay’s not great and the hours are long. One question they all ask: What friggin engineer designed this and how does he expect me to disassemble it now?

  • avatar
    krick

    Grease monkey.

    Sorry – couldn’t resist. Seriously though – I’m not the one who used that term (until just now), but I had no idea that it’s considered an insult. I would have thought with all that grease and fur that technicians would have a thicker skin, but I guess not. Alright, that still wasn’t very serious, but I’ve had so much fun poked at my profession that it’s hard not to poke fun at others.

    -signed Shark/ambulance chaser/weasel/vulture

  • avatar
    Voice of Sweden

    Krick: Take a look and compare the boards of GM and BMW.

    BMW’s is full of engineers. They also seem to have experience from the company.

    In the GM case, I find a tired swede, Percy Barnevik. He is famous for driving a Chrysler Voyager despite being able to afford anything… The rest of them is also outsiders, and between the drug-biz and accounting people you could spot some engineers, SOME!

    And the corporate B.S. on the GM site is just too much:
    General Motors Corp., the world’s largest automaker, has been the global industry sales leader for 76 years.

    Perhaps repeating that prase will make it true forever?

    (Please note that corporations are not run and lead in the same way in Germany and the USA. I’ve tried to compare the right apples with apples! Germany has it’s Aufsichtsrat and the double job of chairman and ceo is unthinkable in Europe!)

    Philbailey: I guess the “automotive technicians” like to have work to do. Easier designs would equal less hours to charge customers.

  • avatar
    ZoomZoom

    krick:

    Grease monkey.
    …….
    -signed Shark/ambulance chaser/weasel/vulture

    Hahahaha, although I should have….I did not see that one coming! Thanks for the laugh!

    Sajeev, good article.

  • avatar
    krick

    Voice of Sweden: You’re making a completely different point now. Your initial point was that the article and following commentary suggest that engineers rather than people with MBAs should be running Detroit. My response was simply to point out that neither the article nor the following commentary actually make that suggestion. As to the differences between German companies and US companies, there’s actually not as much difference as I think you are suggesting. The Vorstand (mgmt board) is effectively the same as a US company’s senior executive group. It is true that people don’t serve on both the Vorstand and the Aufsichtsrat (although it has nothing to do with it being unthinkable – it’s simply not permitted under the German Stock Corporation Act), but other than the CEO, must US public companies do not have any other executive on the board of directors. I would also argue that what differences do exist have nothing at all to do with the relative success and failures of German and US automotive companies. There are enormously successful US companies outside of the automotive industry (Microsoft?), and there’s simply no basis for suggesting that US corporate law has anything to do with Detroit’s problems.

  • avatar
    Voice of Sweden

    Krick: The only time where I find the double ceo & chairman of the board title half-acceptable is when the CEO is a VERY large shareholder, perhaps close to majority. You mention Microsoft, and they used to have this arrangement with Gates a large shareholder.

    Pointing out the fact that the US have successful companies does not rule out the fact that the double role is unsound. Knowing ones strengths and weaknesess is important. The US have many strong competitive advantages – but this is an unsound construction.

    The US is an economy of about the same size as the EU. But why did the US have Enron and so many cases like Enron? Kenneth Lay had the double wopper. You see this over and over again. Management running companies, not the owners. Watch W.S. and the Teldar paper speach tonight for a quick reminder.

    For the lazy ones I’ve inserted the important parts here. Please feel free to replace Teldar Paper with GM (or Ford for that matter) etc. Cromwell is surely CEO and chairman of the board:

    America… America has become a second-rate power.
    Its trade deficit and its fiscal deficit are at nightmare proportions. In the days of the free market, whenour country was a top industrial power…
    …there was accountability to the stockholder.
    The Carnegies, the Mellons, the men that built this great empire, made sure of it… …because it was their money at stake.

    Today, management has no stake in the company!
    All together, these men sitting up hereown less than 3% of the company. And where does Mr Cromwell put his $1,000,000 salary?
    Not in Teldar stock. He owns less than 1%.
    You own the company.That’s right, you, the stockholder.
    And you are all being royallyscrewed over by these bureaucrats… …with their steak lunches, their fishing trips,their corporate jets and golden parachutes.

    Teldar Paper, Mr Cromwell, has 33 different vice presidents… …each earning over $200,000 a year.
    Now, I have spent the last two months analysing what all these guys do.
    - And I still can’t figure it out.
    One thing I do know is thatour paper company lost $110m last year.
    And I’ll bet half of that was spent in all thepaperwork between all these vice presidents!

    The board of a company should draw up the major corporate strategies and keep an eye at the management. Thus the chairman can’t be the CEO.

    The editorial stated:
    Engineers are not in charge of Detroit anymore. The days when startling mechanical innovation and sheer bloody minded engineering excellence determined an automaker’s fate are long gone. In fact, it’s fair to say The Big 2.5’s mechanical talent probably spend most of their working lives trying to solve problems pre-compromised by management greed, arrogance and incompetence.

    Krick wrote:
    Your initial point was that the article and following commentary suggest that engineers rather than people with MBAs should be running Detroit. My response was simply to point out that neither the article … make that suggestion

    You can’t run a modern car company without MBA:s and lawyers. But the company should be lead by engineers. Not the perfectionist kind of engineers like Henry Royce, but the efficient ones that run for example Scania CV AB and AB Volvo.

    Educational content of Voice of Sweden:
    1/2 year ambulance chaser, law that is
    4 1/2 years engineering
    2 years Business Administration

  • avatar
    hal

    I have often read that BMW has an excellent executive training program where they take talented engineers and turn them into executives and as a result ex BMW people are all over the industry. Where do Ford and GM get their execs? Do they have a similar exec training program or do they get drones fresh out of MBA programs and try and turn them into car guys?

  • avatar
    krick

    Voice of Sweden: Er, putting aside the fact that he doesn’t exist, I’m not sure that Gordon Gekko should be anyone’s arbiter of sound corporate governance.

    I’m not sure what powers you think a Chairman has, but if you think the Chairman wields a significantly greater amount of power than other board members, you are mistaken. If you think that the chairman of the mgmt board in a German AG cannot have significant influence over the members of the supervisory board, you are also mistaken. There is potential for abuse in both corporate systems and the German system does not offer any greater level of protection in that regard than does the US system. One look at the Neuer Market collapse and the ensuing federal investigations should be proof enough of that.

    You haven’t given any arguments for why a company should be led by engineers, so I don’t really have anything to respond to on that point.

    Finally, I’m not sure what the relevance is of your level of education and professional experience. They don’t strengthen your arguments in any way.

  • avatar

    Clearly I’m biased, but I feel that an organization like an automotive company is essentially an engineering company, and positions such as accounting and marketing should play a supporting role. Obviously they work together, but ultimately engineers should be running the show.

    Besides, a good engineer is someone who can apply logic and critical thinking to solve problems, a skill that can be used for more than making cars.

  • avatar
    Luther

    Besides, a good engineer is someone who can apply logic and critical thinking to solve problems, a skill that can be used for more than making cars.

    Exactly. The Engineering dynamic is the Business dynamic. They cannot be separated successfully. Its a physical reality thing.

  • avatar
    NinerSevenTango

    I think the big 2.5 has had a long-standing policy:

    Never hire an engineer that has ever gotten his hands dirty or changed his own spark plugs. Or if an exception is made, make sure he works at the plant level on machines, never designing cars.

    I’d make every decision maker put in at least a year repairing cars before getting near a car design, if I had my way.

    –97T–

  • avatar
    Terry Parkhurst

    What an enjoyable, informative article this is. It was nice to see someone mention Ed Cole, the man who devised not only the small-block Chevrolet V8 of 1955, but also the Corvair. His son, David Cole, is a professor at the University of Michigan, heading up an institute that studies transportation.

    Upon reflection, another name comes to mind: Zora Arkus-Duntov. He was the engineer, who with his brother, devised the Ardun overhead valve cylinder head for the old Ford flathead V8 and then ended up getting hired by GM, right around the time the Corvette first rolled out in 1953; and he then became the man perhaps most associated with the Corvette, up to the time of his passing (sometime in the Nineties).

    That’s what The General, Ford and Chrysler most need now, people from outside the corporate mainsteam, brought in to shake things up and innovate. Or maybe it is as simple as allowing the talent they have already, to bust loose. Either way, as an old song by a group called the Chambers Brothers said, back in the Sixties, time has come today.

  • avatar
    shaker

    As a senior technician (electronic), that works with engineers, I can attest to the thankless task of cost reduction that seems to be the main job of engineers these days. Instead of innovation, one is forced to “improve” an existing design by using cheaper parts, fewer assembly steps, etc, while maintaining (hopefully) similar performance and durability (maybe). I am reminded by the 3800 V6 in my ’97 Camaro RS — a 3.8 litre that produces 200 HP; a high output for a pushrod motor at the time. Now (10 years later!) GM makes a 3.9 litre that squeezes out another 40 HP; I would say that a bit of engineering expertise was spent (wasted?) getting the most out of this technology. Although necessary to keep costs down, it was probably not a glamorous task to get the last few percent of theoretical performance out of a dated mill, while those across either pond had OHC designs years before. That said, the Big 2.5 have (domestic) labor/supplier costs that far exceed any other manufacturer’s, and that (let me be bold enough to say), dedicated and clever engineers have kept not only the UAW afloat but also kept some corporate types with bloated salaries in a position to re-distribute the corporate wealth offshore. In a way, engineers are the ultimate “monkey-in-the-middle”; derided by auto mechanics (yet they keep plant assembly labor costs down); and driven relentlessly by management to polish turds (old technology). As Rodney Dangerfield (and many engineers) would attest: “I don’t get no respect… no respect at all!”

  • avatar
    Mechie

    25 year SAE Member here in Ontario. I agree – SAE is a terrific resource on vehicle technology issues around the world.

    I’m one of those kids who cut their teeth on modifying small-block Chevies and decided to keep on going into Engineering School. Spent a couple of years in the Mini-Baja team between classes as well.

    Looking back at the past quarter-century, I’ve been pretty fortunate in finding organizations that will pay me to advise them on vehicle technology – it’s just unfortunate that they are not in the auto industry (most recently in financial services).

    I’ve met some very creative and very frustrated fellow engineers working with the manufacturers over the years. Finding out creative ways to shave another half penny out of a plastic moulding just never appealed to me.

  • avatar
    jurisb

    another problem why engineering potential in usa is going down the slope, is that america probably had already reached it`s limit in egineering by late 80, and because todays moulds have to be so gapless, and all electronic devices and actuators are so precise, american car industry can`t match that precision level. you remember when caddies had golden years in 60, they were shining in chrome more than sophisticated gadgetry. today innovation and precision rules. chrome plated line doesn`t matter today unless it`s precision cast and fits like a glove. today koreans with their plastic ( still precise, and in quality) designs appeal more to customers, than buick`s wood veneer with huge fitting problems( i am not talking about lucerne here).so to be with leaders ,big detroit must put more gadgetry, but with already weak record of durability, thus they only would expose their weaknesses.
    Just look at x-33venture star, that was shut down because of hydrogen fuel tank, that had leaking and integrity problems, ditto dd21 destroyer, ditto cvs-x, crusader howitzer, etc.
    americans are good inventors, because they have good labs in universities, and government should make laws that would put companies in precision movement production in advance. why should timex pay the same taxes as an insurance company or dance club? government should categorize tax levels according to comlexity of production level. and those who drive innovation in manufacturing should have the lowest tax rate. america doesn`t need tax cuts, she needs huge injections into R&D. the money Busch allots to war in Iraq would be enough to build all new boeing 797 hyperjumbo, revive zenith electronics, hamilton, lewis and giddings, push Sikorski in creating s-x choppers, army would get crusader, mc donnell douglas could come out of coffin, and big3 could be reborn with oldsmobile and all new 20 platforms could be created for revival of car industry.kodak could start buiding lenses themselves not just grab from schneider. and truck industry could get a push from stagnation on border of history.for god`s sake, Bush allow your country be proud of herself, for it`s destined in her blood to be proud of her achievements. money is not an achievement but a dreamer boy in a garage dissasembling motorbike with black grease all over his face- could be a beginning for greatness. kill las-vegas thinking in you, and you might get somewhere. because opportunity is a lottery where you can win a wrench but not a car. lunatics@inbox.lv

  • avatar
    Sajeev Mehta

    In a way, engineers are the ultimate “monkey-in-the-middle”; derided by auto mechanics (yet they keep plant assembly labor costs down); and driven relentlessly by management to polish turds (old technology).

    shaker: Very well put. I’d also lump in people like Project Managers, Industrial Designers (stylists), and mid-level employees in marketing/PR/finance/legal/etc to that definition.

    Better communication across departments and management awareness of the need for cross functional teams is crucial.

  • avatar
    moto

    Good article!

    Based on the responses, it sounds like most engineers are only in the last 5 years feeling the effect of the massively overbuilt companies that the 2.5 have become. Theirs is not the only industry that seems to be on the decline, although it certainly will be among the most painful industrial declines in US history.

    Management of any large corporation, almost by definition, is sorely inadequate to provide health and well-being for anyone but themselves. Only massive marketing budgets keep the public from seeing what a charade the auto industry has become. It’s now a fashion show, not an engineering competition.

    The management’s goal is to maximize their power (as measured by stock price, which determines their personal bonuses), which means pandering to the short-term whims of Wall Street, not the long-term health of the company, customer, employee, or surrounding community. Thanks to decades of short-sighted planning, we see that the US auto industry is inefficient, overpaid, and tracks the wrong metrics of success. The engineer is merely one of the checkers in the whole game.

    We can pat ourselves on the back for all the tinkering we do in our garages, but the fact remains that we are continually forced to design increasing fragile products. Cars are really not designed with drivers or mechanics in mind, they are designed by committee, checking off feature lists in comparison with the previous generation and with the current competition. We are forced not to continually improve reliability, durability, or total vehicle lifetime cost to the consumer. We engineers instead are pushed to sacrifice quality to save production costs (according to some accountant’s estimate) and to add distracting gadgets that do not improve the vehicle, but rather satiate people who sit in traffic.

    Before the US automobile industry becomes the marketing and distribution division of some foreign automaker, North American engineers need to stand up against the tide of short-sighted management. Until engineers have free reign to build a concept car free of artist/designer “I like the look of square wheels” fantasy, free of bean-counter compromises, and free of management’s fear of innovation, free of the marketing department’s “slap on a spoiler and call it high performance” thinking, the cars we build will continue to be mediocre.

    One last note: stop swooning over the Chevy small block. Ladies and gentlemen, the small block is over 50 years old. Sure, it’s been a popular and durable product, but we need dramatic innovation in powertrain technologies, not continued polishing of old gasoline engines. We engineers have to stop being satisfied making our new pickup trucks 5% bigger in every dimension and calling it a breakthrough. The Ridgeline, as ugly as it is, is a vastly superior product for 99% of pickup owners than any truck designed in Detroit. Its only a matter of time before brand image gives way and die-hard brand enthusiasts realize that Detroit’s products are truly antiquated, even the newest of them. Proof positive: The “new” Saturn Astra is a 4-year old Opel. The new award-winning Silverado still offers antiquated 4-speed transmissions. Detroit still does not produce a series hybrid vehicle EXCEPT for GM’s diesel electric locomotives. The American car buyer cannot find a domestic mid-engined car, nor a mid-sized hatchback, nor a domestic station wagon, but he can buy any of dozens of badge-engineered sedans and utility vehicles. Need I go on?

  • avatar
    John

    As an old engineer, its nice to see the general public express some respect for the profession, and, more importantly, an understanding of the constraints they work within.

    My profession is medical devices and I”d venture, to the chagrin of upper managements, that the most inspired products were initially sketched on bar napkins. This is not an endorsement of alcohol as a mental stimulant but instead, a marker for an environment that:

    1) Technical and marketing people are comfortable enough with each other to socialize.

    2) When they do socialize, they are into their profession enough to talk about it rather than repress it.

    3) They are outside of the usual stiffling enviorment.

    Speaking of “stiffling enviornment” does it strike anyone as odd that automakers have to use outside ad agencies?

    John

  • avatar
    vento97

    As to the differences between German companies and US companies, there’s actually not as much difference as I think you are suggesting.

    Except for the small fact that the majority of senior management at the German (and Japanese) companies tend to have a “Dr.” as their title (as in an engineering PhD) which exudes an engineering-oriented vision, whereas the U.S. companies senior management tend to be graduates of B-schools – exuding a profit-oriented marketing vision – which isn’t bad in a banking, financial or insurance industry environment. But in a technically-oriented industry, buzzwords, slogans and marketdroid-speak can only get you so far….

    …and in the case of the Big 2.5, it definitely shows in the form of a steadily declining market share…

  • avatar
    krick

    vento97: I don’t disagree with you, but I was referring to US vs German companies generally. Moreover, I was only addressing the issue of statutory and common law differences. I readily agree that in practice German and Japanese automotive companies are run very differently from their US counterparts.

    Out of curiosity, are you sure that those Drs are PhDs of engineering? It would certainly make sense, but in Germany the Dr. prefix is used much more commonly and broadly than it is in the US.

  • avatar
    Ryan

    Moto, to be fair, very few manufacturers outside of the superexotics dabble in mid-engined cars. The cheapest (and just about the only reasonably priced) mid-engined car available today is the Boxster, correct? You can’t exactly bring that up as a failure for the domestics.

    As for the mid-sized hatchbacks or wagons, the Malibu Maxx has to count for one of those two catagories (at least until the fall – I don’t know if GM intends to bring it back for the next generation). Admittedly, the only example in a wide lineup, but then who’s to blame for that, the Big 2.5 or the public who stigmatized wagons and hatchbacks.

    However, as has been said, part of the problem may well be that the 2.5 aren’t interested in hiring car people. For what little it’s worth, I’ve had interviews at two Chevy dealers where I was told outright that they don’t care what the applicant’s attitude was towards cars.

  • avatar
    Voice of Sweden

    Krick: Out of curiosity, are you sure that those Drs are PhDs of engineering? It would certainly make sense, but in Germany the Dr. prefix is used much more commonly and broadly than it is in the US.

    Yes, simply put Doktor Ing. would translate into and is exactly the same thing as PhD.

    The reason you see it so often in Germany is that a PhD there is very respected and that they love (to show off their) titles.

    Say your an engineer, that you did a PhD, that makes you Doktor Dipl. Ing. Krick.

    Or as we can find in in the name of another car example: Dr. Ing. h.c. F. Porsche AG. He got his PhD as a honorary degree.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferdinand_Porsche
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctorate

  • avatar
    fahrvergnugen11

    The reason you see it so often in Germany is that a PhD there is very respected and that they love (to show off their) titles.

    As someone with a science/engineering background, I have a great appreciation for PhDs in upper management. As a matter of fact, when I was in grad school earning my M.S. in Software Engineering (a combination of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering), one of my professors received his PhD in Electrical Engineering at Dresden.

  • avatar
    Lesley Wimbush

    Terry – Zora was the man responsible for coining the “SS” moniker as well.

    Excellent piece Sajeev!

  • avatar
    korvetkeith

    Thanks for the article Sajeev. I’m working on doing something about it;)

  • avatar
    Sajeev Mehta

    Lesley: that’s right, and we have to add Zora to the list. Speaking of Corvettes, the only modern engineers getting any recognition are guys like Dave McLellan and Dave Hill at Chevy, and John Coletti over at Ford.

    Thanks for the article Sajeev. I’m working on doing something about it;)

    And best of luck to you, Keith. :-)

  • avatar
    Lumbergh21

    As an engineering student back in the early 90′s (UC Davis, Chemical Engineering, ’93), I heard from company reps that came on campus to sell their companies as a place to come work and from the prior years graduates that the way to get to the top or even near the top of the company was with an MBA. The engineers mainly tried to make the bean counters ideas work rather than implement their own ideas, which might actually work. I agree that it’s a shame that no matter how engineering intensive a particular industry might be, the direction of the company will still be controlled by MBA’s that don’t know the first thing about design and construction,and IMO, for the most part don’t have the critical thinking that is necessary for problem solving that drives most engineers.


Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Subscribe without commenting

Recent Comments

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Staff

  • Authors

  • Brendan McAleer, Canada
  • Marcelo De Vasconcellos, Brazil
  • Matthias Gasnier, Australia
  • J & J Sutherland, Canada
  • Tycho de Feyter, China
  • W. Christian 'Mental' Ward, Abu Dhabi
  • Mark Stevenson, Canada
  • Faisal Ali Khan, India