How to spot a car company that is about to fail.

The car industry is a very spacial environment, with some very special people in. It seem to attract an amazing mix of personalities and a huge range of talents. Making cars fires some people with an enthusiasm that drives them far beyond the limits of their own talent, it’s a curios business, not quite like any other area of industry.

Old MGs are fun, but they were constrained to use parts that were already out of date, this one has a Lancia Twin Cam engine and shows what could have been.

The history of the car industry is littered with the corpses of dead dreams, idealists, optimists, dreamers have all had a hand in making the story, but equally so have rogues, villains and cheats. It’s even more colourful than the newspaper industry!

Sometimes it’s just one name that signifies the loss of hope, the crushing of dreams and the tragic culling of ordinary hard working decent folk’s jobs. Names like Delorean are well known, but he is unusual in being almost universally held guilty, more often opinion is ferociously split. Names like Eagan, one camp see him as securing the future of Jaguar

The Rover 400, a good example of using Honda's platform investment and adding their own identity. Trouble is it was never replaced when it had run it's course, just facelifted, twice.

with a wealthy parent (Ford), others view his skill in presenting a failing company as being a raging success as nothing more than a traditional used car salesman, some love him, some hate him, this is more often the case with the main characters in the industry.

There are a couple of key facts that are far too often overlooked when bloated executives prepare a new daring business plan for a car company. Firstly it takes a hell of a lot of money, time and people to develop a good car. I think the Ford Focus cost something like four billion dollars, seven years and a couple of thousand people to develop. That’s a huge investment, and a really long wait for a return, remember that is four billion over seven years and not one salable car produced, it would be many years after production started before any return on investment was made. In the Focus case it turned out rather well, but that’s not guaranteed, remember the Scorpio? That was designed many years before launch, as are all cars, can you predict what cars will look like in five years? Can you make a style that will fit in nicely on the high street in ten years time? It’s really easy to poke fun at the tragedy of the Scorpio, a car that lost Ford the D sector market so utterly that they found it more cost effective to just buy Volvo instead of trying to resurrect it, but when you look at the Mercedes that came out a few years later it looks very similar so they were not that far off.

Car design is a massive gamble, huge in fact. Not only does the product have to meet all the customers expectations, but it must meet incredibly stringent legal requirements too. I won’t bang on about the incredible scale and breadth of technical challenges, suffices to say it makes rocket science seem easy by comparison. I’m struggling to thing of another high tech, multi computer controlled, real time systems that has to function in specific ways even whilst being crashed.

It’s a sad fact that throughout the history of car design incompetent management have made the tragic mistake of thinking that the technical things they don’t know about must be easy. Just look at the once magnificent Rover K series engine, originally designed with a closed deck block, no head gasket worries there, solid and robust. But a decision was made to stretch it to a capacity well above it’s original design limits, this is not an engineers decision, this is a managers decision. This decision necessitated the loss of the closed deck and the inevitable sensitivity of the head gasket, but the mangers did what they so often do and pushed it through. Then they had a the clever idea of saving money by making the smaller engines in the same way, thus making the formally robust 1.4 just as fragile as the 1.8. The rest is history.

This is just one example of management not understanding the importance of investing in new designs to meet new targets. This problem is often scaled up to include whole companies, not just one car part. Trying to produce a new model without the correct investment in time, money and people results in inadequate products. Inadequate products result in reduced sales, and so less revenue coming in. Now a clever management team would spot this and invest in a new product to get sales up again, this is a long term strategy and makes successful companies. But a poor management team will notice the falling revenue and react the wrong way by tightening spending, reducing investment and continuing to bang out inadequate cars but with shinier badges and brighter paint.

The Rover 75 was a great new car. By 2003 the company should have started work on it's replacement so that it would be ready for launch in 2010, but they didn't.

When BMW sold Rover they had already made the investment in the 75, from that point on not one new model was developed. The Phoenix chaps made no obvious attempt to replace the old Honda derived 400/45/MGZwhateverthehellitwas etc. Remember it costs billions to develop a new car, they ‘invested’ millions, so no new platforms, no new engines, no new sales. From the moment they announced their plans most people inside the industry knew it was just a matter of time before the company sputtered to a tragic and unnecessary halt. The fact the the government also were convinced to invest millions into the failing company merely shows that ministers were either clueless or had other motives for handing over money to the increasingly wealthy board members.

The new Jaguar XJ. Real investment leads to real success.

Compare this with Jaguar, a company that had suffered inadequate investment since the grim days of the ’70s. When Ford took stock of what they bought and found out the truth they swallowed hard and started investing in making new models such as the XK8 and the S type, they also invested heavily on a complete redesign of the XJ plus they funded the development of Jaguars own legendary V8 even though Ford had a wealth of V8 engines available. They invested heavily and sales increased. No one is perfect and the idea that the X type would out sell the BMW 3 series was flawed, that decision cost them dearly. And the conservative styling of the S type and the XJ limited appeal. But again they saw struggling revenues and invested in new models, the current stunning XJ, XF and XKR were all funded by Ford. They bought Land Rover when BMW split up the Rover group and used the Jaguar engines in a range of new models there too. Unfortunately for Ford their own cash flow problems meant they had to sell Jaguar Land Rover before they saw the return on the investment, but their decision to invest in new engineering has resulted in Jaguar Land Rover posting billion dollar profits.

The Bentley GT was a totally new design, VW invested properly in the factory, the people and the product. A big change compared to the previous owners.

The same success from investment can be seen at companies such as Rolls Royce and Bentley. Morgan is a fascinating departure from the norm, they have steadfastly remained focused on doing what they do best, on servicing their unique customers demands, resisting the brainless call to expand excessively. They have stayed small but crucially stayed profitable, it is a very clever model and one that any aspiring business leader should make time to understand. But even they have understood the need to invest in new models, but where they could not afford to design their own parts they have bought in parts that meet their needs, benefiting from someone else’s investment and avoiding the trap of under investing in designing their own engines etc.

Focused investment at the right level generates success. Under investment generates failure.

So you see, if a mainstream car company announces it is going to make new models then there needs to be a large amount of money behind it to work, billions not millions. It also need the facilities and people to make it happen, thousands, not hundreds.

If you see a company that historically designs only one new model at a time then they will have the facilities and people to do only that. If they announce that they will suddenly make five new models at once then they will need five times more people, larger facilities and huge investment.

It is sad to see that there are such companies about in the UK, making bold plans but with a fraction of the required investment. The same old story, with inevitably the same old ending; lots of trouble, usually serious.

First casualty of adversity

There is a saying in the army; something like the first casualty of any war is the plan. This reflects the fact that in adversity normal rules fail, but it is not restricted to war zones, there is a battle raging on all around us and on our streets right now.

If you starve a colony of rats they will eventually start killing each other, so I’m reliably told, to reduce the burden on the available food supply. They start by turning on the weak and old, then turn on the outsiders and any member of the community who is unusual in any way. We do the same, in fact most creatures do this to survive.

The instinct to turn on some members of the community when times get hard can be seen in the ridiculous way that some drivers demonise drivers of other types of vehicle. We all feel the pinch from fuel prices and many of us feel guilt at CO2 output, and whilst this drives some of us to find better ways to get about and to develop better cars, it also drives some people to blame minorities for their own perceived plight. One example that effects me is the way 4x4s are attacked. We have two Land Rovers, and they are used for heavy jobs but not for long journeys so their annual CO2 footprint is quite small, but that doesn’t stop 4×4 haters putting anonymous hate mail under the wipers and campaigning to ban them. The fact that a 20k mile a year Micra chucks out twice as much nasty each year seems to escape them.

Right tool for the right job, different cars have different uses but room for everyone.

 

This is just one example where society fragments and one section turns on another. Unfortunately all this does is consume energy and resources for no useful result, surely their cause would be better served if our energy is whole heatedly put into solving the problems of CO2 rather than banning this or that sub set of the community. In the UK 4×4 all terrain vehicles count for a very small percentage of the cars on the road, and their lower average mileage means that even with a slight increase in fuel consumption they contribute a minority of the road vehicle CO2, so banning them is not going to help anyway, and crucially all the media attention takes attention away from the truly important debate on how we stop CO2 emissions completely. (And before you go off on one; yes this does assume the CO2 issue is real, I am not going to get involved in that debate as I don’t have enough detailed knowledge to make a positive contribution, but in the context of this article it serves to illustrate how society fragments and how this is counter productive. So please don’t have a go at me about CO2)

Manufacturers are chucking huge quantities of money and resources into solving these big problems, but making plans for future eco products is hampered by the car buying populous constantly bickering amongst themselves about what sort of car is best, for example Ford has repeatedly tried to sell electric city cars such as the Think which was available a decade ago, but no one bought them. We have the hybrid fanciers and the hybrid haters, each throwing salvoes of misinterpreted data at each other to prove their own point of view. We have the big car lobby and the small car evangelists undermining each others right to exist on the road. Performance car enthusiasts are put against green car preachers, each striving to point out the pointlessness of the other’s point of view. The fact is we all have the same right to be here, we are all part of the problem and simply fragmenting will not solve anything.

Rolls Royce have gone to great lengths to demonstarte their EV technology really works.

 

Imagine if instead of finger pointing we actually joined forces, with car sharing on each part of the street so that one families diesel estate got used by many families for their annual holiday, or the neighbours 4×4 was available to anyone in the community to borrow for really big jobs and getting provisions in the snow. There is no technical obstacle to this, but there is a massive attitude problem which kills the idea dead. In any scheme like this someone always get disproportionately more benefit than someone else, but so what? As long as everyone in that group gets enough benefit what does it matter if someone else gets even more? But most humans rarely think like that.

Of course it is not just the car world that has this problem, recently we saw public sector strikes that seemed to resolve everybody’s opinions either for or against, most opinions seemed to be formed with the minimum of data and the maximum of social prejudice. For my part I voiced the opinion that I found it difficult to agree with the strike when we were all suffering from financial hardships, notice I did not say I disagreed with it, just that I found it difficult. In this example there are genuine grievances, if I signed up for a job on the promise of a good pension and several years of hard work later it suddenly gets taken away then I too would be bloody fuming. Clearly this aspect is a very bad thing to do. But when we look at the other side we find that there simply is not enough money to pay for this as well as everything else, this is a very big problem that has been brewing for many years and is suffered by most western countries. In this case both sides are right, the solution is to generate more wealth to pay for the promises whilst adjusting the terms of employment for new recruits, or something along those lines possibly. But rather than have a national debate about how to fix this and coming up with ideas, we are instead once again fragmenting into ‘sides’ and just having a slanging match.

My V12 Jag racer would use 50 litres of fuel per race, but this was only 8 times a year. Some want to ban racing but commuting uses far more fuel! We need a solution to all problems, not a ban on minorities.

 

Then there is the current hatred for rich people, it seems that anyone who has managed to amass a decent wedge must be vilified for the obviously evil methods they used to steal the cash of the hard working whatever. Again this is pointless, there are freeloading useless people in every sector of society, no one has a monopoly on bastards. But instead of discussing how we can all get a bit better off the argument descends into taking money off rich people to give to poor people, and in doing so fragments society into those who have money and those who don’t, rather than joining forces and generating new businesses that add value and generate wealth.

My message is a simple one; stop attacking and start building. Time is running short, and there’s a storm coming.

Running cars on water

Can you run your car on water?

There have been many stories of genius inventors making a car that runs on water, only to be silenced by the evil oil companies, never to be seen again.

Can you run your car on water? Well, not like this, obviousely.

I was intrigued by the sheer volume of technical claims, despite decades working at the cutting edge of automotive technology and being immersed in scientific theory I am acutely aware there is always room for doubt, and for new ideas to surprise and change the way we think. Ideas like these are rare but happen often enough to make keeping an open mind and essential part of the make up of the modern engineer.

The traditional view is that water is basically hydrogen that has already been burnt, so it has no usable energy content left. Because of this fact there is a tendency to think that all these people who believe in water power are all nutters who probably have been abducted by aliens and experimented on for a laugh and are a tiny minority. But nothing prepared me for the depth and complexity of the technical explanations and the shear volume of conspiracy theory’s involving governments, car makers and oil companies all in cahoots to keep us buying expensive oil.

Well, let me assure you that car makers would quite happily stab the oil companies in the back if they could sell a few more cars, and one that ran on water would sell rather well, don’t you think?

So, how do you run your car on water?

Well, you will need a big plastic jar (screw top with a good seal), a small plastic jar, some tubing, a few strips of metal, some small bolts, a fuse and some wire.

But before I go into details, I want to talk about electrolysis. I found a number of amusing web sites that propose the use of hydrogen made from passing current through water. So far that’s not a bad idea, many car companies are investing quite a lot in converting petrol engines to run on hydrogen.

Where these sites go off the rails is when they generate the gas on board the car, using electricity from the alternator, which is of course powered by the engine.

Here are some basic figures for you, a good car engine will convert 33% of the energy released from the fuel into usable power at full throttle, it goes down to about 10% at light loads. An old carb engine might be as poor as 20% at full tilt. Oddly enough big engines can be more thermally efficient than small ones, its all to do with heat loss and the ratio of volume vs surface area, the most efficient piston engines in the world are the cathedral engines in super tankers, such as the 25 thousand litre Wartsila-Sulzer RTA96-C turbocharged two-stroke 14 cylinder, which gets up to 50% efficiency. You may recal I did a blog post about it last month, its very impressive but at 2300 tons you would struggle to get it in a car.

So, going back to our in-car hydrogen plant, with the precious little power left at the crank we drive the alternator, which usually has quite a good efficiency, converting about 90% of the power fed into it into electrical energy.

Then there is electrolysis, at the molecular level, the energy you put in to separating water into hydrogen and oxygen is the same energy you get back when you set fire to it. Interestingly, some of that energy can come from heat from the environment, ie the heat from the engine.

So, when you add up all those efficiencies up, to produce 1bhp worth of hydrogen, the engine has to burn nearly 4bhp worth to make the process work.

Guess why it doesn’t work!

Mind you, if you generate the electricity away from the car, say from a wind turbine in your back garden, store the gas in huge explosive bags attached to the roof of your car then you are on to a winner. Until it imitates the Hindenburg.

So once again I have shown that you can’t run your car on water. So now I will finally get round to showing you how to do it.

One of the reasons that the efficiency of car engines is so low is that not all the petrol gets burnt, and some gets partially burnt. The actual combustion process is very complicated, with molecules decomposing into sub species before reforming into exhaust gasses. The flame front travel across the cylinder is also semi-chaotic and some molecules get passed by entirely. Some start burning then hit the cold cylinder walls and stop burning, some start burning at the end of the process when the piston is to far down to convert it into usable energy. Petrol mixtures burn at a rate of about 40 to 50 centimeters per second depending on loads of factors like pressure, turbulence and temperature. That’s one of the reasons that big engines run slower as it takes longer for the flame to travel across the bigger combustion chamber, for instance that super tanker engine I mentioned produces 5 million ftlb of torque at just over 100 rpm.

If we could speed up the burning process then more of the petrol’s energy can be converted into useful work on the piston. Also, if we could put in something that would mix more readily with the air and bridge the gaps in the fuel mixture we could avoid those dead spots.

Ooh, hydrogen does that, it mixes very readily and burns faster. So all we need is a very small amount of hydrogen and we can improve the efficiency of the petrol.

The difference in power at part load by introducing a sniff of Hydrogen.

Well, if its so good why hasn’t it been done before? Well, it turns out that this method has been used for many years and some reasonable research has gone into it, have a trawl through the SAE web site and you will see that many respected institutions and big companies have published papers on the subject. Some use methane which is broken into hydrogen and carbon dioxide by the use of rather hot steam. Of course you then have a hydrogen car that produces co2 which is sort of bad really.

So here is the theory; you get a bucket of water strapped to the car, stick two bits of metal in it (electrodes) connected to the battery (via a switch and fuse). The lid on the bucket has a hose to transport the explosive hydrogen and oxygen gas to another bottle where any water is removed (don’t want to hydraulic the engine). Finally the hose is stuffed somewhere in the intake to allow the gas in.

Great, but how much gas do we need? Well, to make 1g of hydrogen you need to apply 285Kj of energy to the water, luckily the water tends to use energy from the environment during the process, so potentially about 48 Kj of heat will come from the engine bay, leaving our electrics to provide about 237Kj per gram.

Now, power in Watts is Joules per second. So 1.4Kw (1 HP) is 1.4Kj per second. Which works out equivalent to burning about 0.006 grams of hydrogen per second, or in volume terms that’s about 0.066 litres per second, a steady stream of small bubbles.

So for a cars electric system to put in 14Kw of power at 14v the current will be 100 amps, which is a lot.

But remember we are not talking about using the hydrogen to power the engine, but to help get more useful energy from burning the petrol. So the big question is how much do we actually need? The web sites suggest one litre of water will last up to 900 miles. That works out at about 1.1g per mile, and of that 1.1g of water there is only 0.12g of hydrogen per mile. At average speeds this works out at about 0.0013g/s, about one fifth of a bhp, less than 1% of the overall fuelling and will draw about 10 amps in the electrolysis bucket.

To get a sensible answer to all this, I nailed some scrap metal into an old washing powder tub and tried out some combinations.

First attempt, stainless steel wire in plastic formers.

The first version was one recommended on an American web site, claiming up to 40% gains in efficiency. It consists of a one litre plastic container with two bolts in as electrodes. But even with a little salt added to my copy it only managed to draw 0.1 amps and no detectable gas flowed out of the outlet hose. In short, it was useless and had no effect on the engine.

Clearly we need more power, one of my favourite sayings. So next we have a system with drastically increased conductor length by using wire, wound round a cross shaped former, still in the one litre pot. This has the effect of drawing 10 amps, about where most of the internet products are, and a steady stream of bubbles.

Second attempt after a few thousand miles. Third version ran cleaner.

This very small amount of gas will have the most dramatic effect on the engine at lower loads and idle because that is where it will be the biggest proportion of the total mixture, so I fitted the system to the intake and watched the injector pulse widths and lambda compensations so see what effect it had. Well, the web sites suggest a 30% fuel saving overall, so at idle it must be huge, but no, there was absolutely no difference on average.

I even drove it round for a few weeks, and at first I though I could just detect an improvement in power and the fuel bill seemed to be dropping. But then it went up again; it turned out that it was just me driving more carefully as I paid more attention to what I was doing after fitting the kit. This is a very common phenomenon.

First instalation, about to test current and voltage on my long suffering Land Rover, subject of a great many experiments...


So how much gas do I need then? Well, some very useful research has been done by NASA and various universities. Basically to get a 30% increase in efficiency (power out vs fuel in) we need to run 90% hydrogen/10% petrol!

At 50 % hydrogen the efficiency improvement is only 15%, but what does that mean in a normal car? Well, if you are cruising down the motorway you might be using about 20kw of engine power, if you only run 50% HHO then that’s 10kw of electricity running through your jam jar, at 14v that’s over 710 amps out of your alternator! But then that power comes from the engine so it would now have to produce over 30kw, which would mean a 30% increase in petrol use in order to gain a 15% efficiency saving….. Hmmmmm..

Now, bear in mind that the average driver can improve their fuel economy by up to 30% just by learning better driving techniques, and that on an average commute fuel economy can vary by 20% easily depending on what mood the driver is in. So subjective assessment of 10% economy gain is meaningless, it has to be checked on a proper test facility.

There are of course other ways of generating hydrogen on board a car, using chemical reactions, and this would take the alternator problem out of the loop, but generally the chemicals are rather nasty/expensive and leave a chemical waste problem.

One of the favourites being explored by the car industry is called ‘reformate’ where the petrol is partly separated into CO2 and Hydrogen using a catalysts and exhaust heat. At the moment the fuel savings don’t justify the expense of the extra equipment, but I am sure that will change in time.

Water has a number of other benefits in a traditional engine, I am sure you know about water injection which turns a bit more of the heat energy from combustion into pressure energy. It also reduces cylinder temperatures and so reduces knock, allowing a bit more advance. But also a small amount of water, up to 5%, if well mixed in the fuel before its injected can increase power by up to 7%. Unfortunately you cannot just chuck a cup of water in the fuel tank, because it wont mix, you need some reasonably clever and accurate mixing machinery.

In short, there is a lot you can do with water. However, if you google ‘water car’ then the myriad of websites that appear generally talk complete twaddle and make excessive claims for there own brand of hocus. Whilst I am talking about the web sites, there were a few claims that I feel are potentially harmful.

First is the matter of your cars warrantee, unlikely anyone thinking of doing this will have any, but the point is that despite the various web site claims, fitting absolutely anything to your engine will invalidate the warrantee. In the car industry we spend a huge amount of time and effort checking the car works under all sorts of conditions, it takes years for each model to complete all the tests before being ready for production. Modern engines are so finely tuned that any disturbance will cock things up, and that includes those plug in chip tunes by the way. So plumbing in a bottle of water to your intake will definitely lose any warrantee.

Next, some sites sell you electronic devices to bias engine sensors to make it run lean, best fuel economy generally happens when you run 10% lean of stoich, which is fine at part load on a non cat car, but obviously not at full load because things overheat and fail, and if you have a cat it will stop working eventually. And as these are sold without checking the engine on a dyno the potential for detonation or catalyst damage is rather significant.

Then there is the matter of additives in the water, remember it all goes somewhere and some chemicals will put quite nasty things into the atmosphere. Some sites advocate volatile fuel additives too, again the reason the car industry doesn’t do this is that it poisons the catalyst and puts very nasty stuff into the air. Fuels with super chemicals that don’t pollute as much are readily available, such as Shell Optimax or BP Ultimate which have over 200 chemicals in to get the best performance.

Safety seems to get a fairly low priority too. Remember that as we separate the water we get a perfectly explosive mix of hydrogen and oxygen, albeit in very small amounts. If the pot you generate the gas in is not ventilated then any slight spark could leave you pot-less and potentially destroy things under the bonnet. Luckily most of these systems produce so little gas that it is unlikely to be a problem!

So in summary, yes you can run your car on water, but not using a jam jar and some wire.

Research.

Don’t just take my word for it; here are some of the research papers I used in my research:

SAE 841399 1984

Water/fuel mixtures

SAE 740187 1974

Lean burn with Hydrogen supplementation

General Motors Corp.

SAE 810921 1981

Lean burn with Hydrogen supplementation

University of Michigan

SAE 2004-01-1270

Hydrogen reformate (H + CO2)

Robert Bosch GmbH

SAE 760469 1976

Hydrogen reformate in aircraft engines

Jet Propulsion lab

What are the losses?

The heat released from fuel is mostly wasted, about a third goes down the exhaust pipe (turbos can recoup a small fraction of this) and another third goes into the oil and coolant. A smaller amount is wasted as noise and vibration.

At part load the throttle causes an obstruction that wastes power too. A better solution at part load is to replace the unwanted air with an inert gas, this allows the throttle to open up and reduce losses. That is why Exhaust Gas Recirculation (EGR) can improve economy by 5%.

What is reformate?

This is where the petrol is broken down into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The CO2 is inert and at part loads is used as ‘padding’ allowing higher throttle openings, this reduces the throttle losses and also improves efficiency. This double benefit is why the car industry is concentrating on this way of making Hydrogen. But with the petrol engine’s days numbered, the technology may never mature.

What is HHO, Oxy-hydrogen or ‘Browns Gas’?

This is what you get from electrolysing water, it is simply oxygen and hydrogen in a gas. There is a lot of myth about it, but here are the facts: It burns at about 2800 C, compared to about 2000 C for petrol in air, or about 3000 C for oxyacetylene welding kit. In fact it was one of the first gasses for welding, but in slightly richer proportions. When HHO is burnt in air, as in our engine example, the flame temperature drops to similar values to petrol.

When it burns it expands, and so can be used to power piston engines, then it forms water vapour and starts to condense, rapidly contracting into just water.

The gas has been the subject of many hoaxes, frauds and misguided optimistic claims.

It’s not magic, just nature. Although personally I thing nature is pretty magic.

Car faults in perspective: What can possibly go wrong….again..

One in a million.
My boss told me “so that means your design will defiantly kill two people per year!”.
That was 20 years ago, when I was a fresh faced engineering graduate in my first job at a global car maker. I was designing bits of engine management system, and as ever I had gone through every type of conceivable failure and worked out how well it was protected against. But one very obscure scenario involved the car stalling on a hypothetical level crossing near a strong radio transmitter, a bit tenuous but it is a situation that could happen, I had gone through the figures and worked out that it was a million to one chance that the engine would not restart, resulting in something bad involving a train and sudden localised distortion to the car (ok, a crash).
I thought that this was a remote chance, but my then boss pointed out that the systems would be put on about 2 million cars per year in Europe, hence his terminal conclusion.
I redesigned it. No one had to die.

Cars made in high volumes are used in every sort of environment possible, testing for all occurances is a huge investment.

But even so, I am sure there could be even more obscure situations I had never even thought of, I probably could have spent years going through more and more complex scenarios, but the the car would never have been made. So we have to draw the line somewhere.

How common are uncommon faults?
Cast your mind back to Toyota’s ‘sticky pedal’ problem, millions of cars work fine yet a handful of unverified complaints necessitated a total recall. You just can’t take chances, even if almost every car is perfect.
Of course Toyota are no worse than Ford, Mercedes and all the rest, all volume products suffer from occasional problems, largely due to the scale of production and of course because we want our complex cars dirt cheap, and that’s not going to change any time soon.
When an industry has to make very complicated machines with highly sophisticated features that are used by the general public who have only minimal training, and have to endure a vast array of harsh environments including salt spray, Arctic freeze, road shocks and days on end in scorching sun, things are going to be difficult. And when this problem is massively compounded by having to make the car as cheap as possible, something has to give.

New ideas like this Rolls Royce EV undergo a huge amount of testing before any customer is allowed near it.

Times this set of problems by the millions of cars made every year and the law of averages is definitely not on the side of car makers. If you think about it, the mere fact that when something does go wrong it makes the headlines tells us something about the utterly fantastic job that all these companies usually do.
If the average Joe knew anything of the vast amount of sheer hard work that goes into creating cheap, economical, useful and reliable cars they would bow down in reverence, and those that fancy their chances at suing for spurious accidents would hang their head in shame.
But hardly anyone knows about all that fantastic engineering work, it doesn’t make sexy TV programs, it’s not vacuous and glamorous enough to make it into the glossy magazines. So every one just accepts that every machine should work perfectly no matter what, and are utterly surprised on the very rare occasion that it doesn’t.
So how often do things fail? Well things are much more likely to go wrong when any product is either new or reaching the end of its designed life, the first few miles a car experiences show up any glitches in production and then once these are sorted most modern cars will trundle on for over a decade without significant problems (assuming its correctly maintained). During the cars early life car makers measure things in returns per thousand and generally they run well below 5, that’s 0.5% of cars having any sort of fault at all in the first year of ownership. Good models will run at less than 0.005%, and these faults could be anything from a cup holder breaking to an engine failing. The trouble is that if you churn out a couple of million cars a year then even these tiny numbers mean there will be hundreds of failures in the field, unfortunately these make good stories. Manufacturers hate even these small numbers of faults, obviously every company’s dream is to have no failures at all, and indeed some models achieve this, and they are all striving to eradicate all potential for failure. But occasionally I think its a bit sad you will never see a headline reading ‘millions of car turned out to be pretty good actually’.
Even a very high powered Porsche can be safely driven sideways in the rain by an idiot driver, as shown here.

Cars are amazing.
Here’s a challenge for you; think of a machine that has to work in heavy rain, baking sun, snow, ice, deserts, be precise on tarmac yet still cope with cobble stones, Suffer grit and gravel being blasted at it from underneath and do a huge range of complex mechanical tasks at temperatures between -40 to +50 C, last over a decade whilst being shaken, accelerated, decelerated by novice users in a crowded and complex environment.
There are no other machines, just motor vehicles, which have to contend with all this.
But it doesn’t stop there, the engine is retuned every combustion cycle, hundreds of times each second in order to meet the incredibly stringent emissions laws, pollutants are measured in parts per million, the tests are so sensitive that simply exhaling into an emissions test machine would cause the limits to be exceeded (note; these are not the simple emissions testers used at MOT stations, the MOT emissions limits are laughably lax by comparison to the certification tests the manufacturer has to do).
To give you a very rough idea of the amazing computing power needed to control and engine to these limits, a modern engine control box (ECU) may have around 25 thousand variables, tables, maps and functions. It calculates mathematical models of how the air flows through the intake system, how the pistons and valves heat up and how the catalysts is performing, it analyses the subtle acceleration and deceleration of the flywheel every time a cylinder fires, it listens to the noise the cylinder block makes and filters the sound to decide if the engine has the slightest amount of knock (in fact some engine deliberately run the engine into borderline detonation to extract maximum efficiency). It talks to the gearbox to anticipate gear changes and control torque so that the gearbox ECU can precisely control the energy input into the drive line during a gear shift. It analyses the long and short term behaviour of every single sensor and actuator to automatically compensate for ageing and wear as well as diagnosing and compensating for any faults.
But it doesn’t stop there, on some cars the suspension analyses the road and adapts to suit, the auto gearbox monitors the drivers ‘style’ and changes the way it works to please them. The brakes check wheel speed thousands of times a second and deduce when a tyre is about to skid, not when it already has started skidding, and relieve brake pressure just before it happens to ensure the tyre provides maximum grip and stability.
The climate control breathes in cabin air through tiny aspirated temperature sensors and adjusts valves and flaps to discretely meet your comfort needs. The stereo selects a nearby station as you drive along and seamlessly switches in so you never have to retune in order to continue to listen to Radio 2 on long journeys. All sorts of things are controlled and monitored from fuel pumps to light bulbs.
This is the engine and gearbox control from a 20 year old Jaguar, since then it has got a whole lot more complicated!

All in all an average family car might have between five and ten computers working together, sharing information and jointly controlling the car, a typical example would be the ABS unit supplying road speed info to the gearbox so it knows what gear to select. Luxury cars can have over 50 different computers, even the seat heaters have self diagnosing control brains in and talk to the car on a serial bus, and they all interact with things like the battery management systems which may at any time request all these systems change the way they are operating in order to cope with some adverse situation.
The way these systems work together can be very complex, for instance stability control uses the ABS system to apply brakes on individual wheels in order to pull the car to one side as well as requesting a certain wheel torque to ensure the car goes in the desired direction, this torque is controlled by the gearbox and engine working together too, the engine can react almost instantaneously by altering the spark angle (these events happen so fast that the engine has to wait for the airflow to reduce going into each cylinder even though it moves the throttle immediately, because of the air’s inertia!).
Components have to operate faultlessly for millions of cycles, if an engine or drive-line fault develops then the systems must identify it, adjust the mode of operation to minimise risk to car and people, and alert the driver, just like having an expert mechanic on board.
In addition the car has to be comfy by isolating key frequencies from being transmitted by the suspension and engine mounting systems, prevent wind noise from the gale force breeze rushing past the shell, stop the metal box that makes the cabin sounding like a metal box and muffle the many kilowatts of noise running through the exhaust pipe.
It also has to be economical, using every drop of fuel sparingly, compromising the shape of the car itself to reduce drag whilst still allowing enough space to get everything in and have enough air flow round the hot bits to stop them degrading.
But as well as being frugal it also has to perform well, even a modest family hatchback these days has the performance of a race car from the ’60s, indeed there are many saloons with well over 500bhp now, compare this with the 1983 F1 race winning Tyrrell with 530 bhp. Yes our super comfy mobile entertainment centres have the performance of an older Formula 1 car.
And not only does it have to balance all these driving related tasks but it also has to have a really good sound system and have most of the comforts of home, some even have cup holders and fridges.
A few decades ago an Engineer could just look at a car, such as this ultra rare Lagonda V12, and understand how it worked. How times have changed.

Not even the Space Shuttle has to contend with this level of sophistication. I can’t see rockets running catalytic converters and exhaust mufflers any day soon.
And here is the kicker; as well as coping with all that, it also has to perform special functions in a crash. We have multiple air bags, who’s operation is tuned to the ‘type’ of crash detected, we have automatic engine cut, hazard indication, seatbelt pre-tensioning and some cars even ring for help. The structure is designed and tested to ensure it collapses in a controlled manner, the engine design is constrained by pedestrian head impact tests on the bonnet, even the steering wheel is designed to steadfastly hold its position as the cars structure a few feet in front of it is crushed at a rate of up to 15 meters per second.
Name me one other machine that has to detect, reliably, when it is about to be destroyed and then deploy safety mechanisms in a controlled and measured manner during the actual process of its own destruction. You’ll struggle with that one.
Now this feat of engineering would be amazing even with an unlimited budget, but the fact is that cars are made as cheaply as possible, which just take the achievement from amazing to utterly astonishing. In fact you can buy a basic car for the price of a really good telly, that’s bonkers.

Please take a few moments to look at your own car, and marvel. And if one part goes wrong by all means take it back and get it fixed, but do try to be sympathetic to the scale of the problem engineers face.

The road ahead is challenging, but also very exciting as Engineers turn dreams into reality.

Post Script:

Media hype
I noticed something interesting during the Toyota recall, the media could have played a very useful role and helped society, I say ‘could have’ because what they actually did was the complete opposite.
What they could have done is reported actual news, facts presented objectively such as ‘a small numbers of cars may have a fault causing the pedal to be stiff’. That is a fact, it gets the info over simply and effectively, you know what is being said. Simple.
They could have gone further and said something like ‘if your pedal feels stiff visit your dealer, but first check the floor mat hasn’t got stuck under the pedal’. That would be helpful.
But they didn’t do that.
No, what actually got reported was along the lines of ‘mum of five in death plunge tragedy’ and ‘is your car a ticking time bomb of doom?’. Stupid, dramatised gossip that conveys absolutely no useful information.
But of course this scaremongering helps to boost sales of that form of media bilge, so expect more useless crap in the future about every important storey going.
And this is a real problem, not only because it leaves us all badly informed and scared, but because the car companies now know that being honest and open has become the wrong thing to do.
All media has a responsibility, and its time they (we) faced up to it.

Relying on the unreliable.

When I was little I remember listening to old people talking about a time when there where no cars, the feeling of excitement and wonder when they saw their first one rattling and belching down the cobbled street, a feeling mixed with a little fear as the mechanical marvel seemed to take over every aspect of life. Where once they played safely in the road, now the car was the king and a ruthless one at that. Communities divided by a constant steam of deadly traffic.
Of course today we take the car for granted. It would be an over simplification to say we have moved away from the workers slums into suburbia and now rely on the car to support this freedom, but you get the idea.
We teach our children ‘road sense’ so they can cross the road safely. Most drivers are not deadly speed demons (although in town most people still speed, 40 in a 30 zone IS deadly), everyone works together to make the new situation work. Society adjusts and we move on.
Now it seems that its my turn to sound old because I remember a time when there were no PCs.
I remember the excitement of my first Sinclair ZX80, and the awe of seeing the colour ZX Spectrum. In fact looking back I can still feel a little of that excitement about those pioneering machines.
But now I feel the fear, a deep and profound fear.
Now don’t get me wrong here, I am a great believer in the usefulness of computers, I have a degree in computer systems engineering, I have made a career out of devising computer control systems for cars and I love gadgets.
But still, now I feel the fear.
When I was studying to become and engineer, every step of the way I was told of the importance of doing things properly, especially where safety or security were concerned. With a large computer program we were taught to exactly and correctly specify what it should do in every detail. We had to also specify what it must not do! Once the program is written then it must be tested against this specification, and every possible combination of circumstances must be tested. That is the only way to ensure there are no ‘bugs’ and unexpected side effects.
But life is not like that, it turns out.
The software (and also hardware now) on almost everything is so complex that it requires a computer program just to be able to test it.
No one programmer can understand the whole thing, its just too big, so we have teams which may be spread out across the world. This gets complicated in itself so now we have programs to help the teams work together without bits getting left out and to prevent miss interpretations etc.
But we live in a market driven society. Its not usually the engineers alone that create products, it’s the corporations. Many individuals with their own beliefs on how things should be done dictating the boundaries and detail of what the engineers can do, but far too often without a sound understanding of the technicalities.
Money has too be made (although notable exceptions include Linux and shareware (three cheers)) and so whole chunks of code from other programs are grafted in to new programs, the people producing this new program may not know the details of how this chunk was written and all its effects. Sometimes there may be a ‘surprise’ effect caused by the interaction of this chunk with the rest of the program, or with other chunks grafted in or indeed other programs running on the same machine or network.
Testing takes time and money and delays the launch date. Some things just can’t be tested completely due to their nature, for example if your program predicts the weather then how do you test every possible combination of weather across the whole world and still meet the project deadlines.
The hardware too is so complex that it is not commercially viable, or indeed possible, to test every single thing. With several million transistors on a single chip it is never going to get tested for the effects of every combination of individual transistor failures.
So that’s where we are today. Our systems are only partially tested and often a patchwork of other peoples work all stuck together with what boils down to little more than hope and optimism. Or indeed sometimes cynicism if the corporation concerned has little respect for the end user of its products.
Many consumer products are made by inexperienced teams and pushed out by unscrupulous corporations (particularly in countries where software standards are not enforced) and are largely unproven. There is also the modern phenomena of social networks, these are a great benefit to individuals and businesses alike and I use Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and blog sites to generate interest in my work. In fact I rely on these systems as a key part of my business, but these were never even designed to be mission critical business tools.
Many of us have experienced the result of this growing problem, such as the PC just locking up when you try a new program or simply getting slower and slower as time goes by. These bug and software faults are so common that many people think it is normal for computers to behave like this. It must be realised that it doesn’t have to be this way technically, but commercial pressures could continue to make the problem worse.
Complexity is a big problem and is the subject of many a professor’s career.
Now, the reason that I am writing this is not just to have a good grumble about my computer crashing or indeed to complain about commercial forces ruining good engineering. Those thing make me angry, but they are not the cause of my fear.
The fear stems from how we are using these systems as a society, how we are relying on the unreliable.
Computer systems are now increasingly being used as part of the law enforcement system, finance control, travel systems and even food production
Speed cameras always cause a good argument so I will stir things up a bit further. Now I know very well that excessive speed increases danger of injury and general twisting of machinery and limb, and putting a speed camera outside a school is no bad thing.
The issue for me comes from the fact that the picture generates an automatic fine for a person. There is no human judgement in the loop, bang, guilty until proven innocent. And that’s wrong.
A friend of mine suffered from a theft from his car, not from inside but from outside. The number plates were stolen. Persons of criminal persuasion had stolen a car, then went cruising round till they find an identical type of car to put an innocent chaps plates on their stolen car. Then they can generate speeding fines and parking tickets with impunity and even commit serious crime knowing full well that the system will point the finger at some one else. It even causes the police to waste time with the wrong chap during the investigation, keeping the heat of the criminals long enough for them to make their escape.
Guilty until proven innocent, not good, not very British.
Soon we may all have ID cards. This means that criminals only need to forge one item instead of a string of items as at present, thus making their life easier. Another classic case of the decision makers not understanding the technology.
The systems used for security on such cards are simply to complex to be testable, and driven down on price so the quality has to suffer. It’s simply not reliable.
If you want quality you have to pay for it because quality systems take more time to engineer, and crucially more time and resources to test, it all costs money.
In the near future there may be an attempt to make remote vehicle arrestors mandatory on all new cars. This system uses ABS systems that have full authority breaking and engine management systems to bring a car to a halt using a radio command that only police will have.
In a simplistic world this is great, you report your car stolen and the police can bring it to a halt when the conditions are safe. No more getaway cars. Well, unless criminals use older cars, but that loophole is easily solved by making classic cars illegal and crushing them all!
The problems include accidental stopping of the car (you cant prove the software completely due to its complexity and you cant prove the hardware completely because you cant test every failure and every type of possible radio interference etc), incorrect use by the police or other agencies, vehicle being stopped by criminals equipped with illicit stopping systems for the purpose of car jacking. Finally there is always a way to bypass the system, always a loop hole, a bug, a back door or an ‘unintentional feature’.
I was on a train in Germany a while back which suddenly stopped in the middle of nowhere without warning, brakes full on. Luckily I had finished my coffee so the cup was empty when it flew off the table. The cause of this potentially dangerous emergency stop was a software error in the very system that is supposed to protect the train from crashes.
Our corporate based society does not allow for well written systems to be made as profitably as quickly written ones.
This is a real problem, and it is getting worse as more systems are used which interact with each other in even more complex ways.
In my life I rely on a mobile phone, I rely on my car, my computer, email, bank direct debits, automatic payments, alarm clock, microwave, fridge, washing machine etc.
The power feeding my home is controlled by systems all linked together in a network across the country and even linked in to grids in other countries. Some years ago a large areas of the USA lost power as one network was hit by lightning which knocked out a power station, the systems automatically switched in power from other networks but this overloaded them, a domino effect then ensued as one grid after another went out.
Even the basic things in life are computer controlled, like the amount of chlorine in the water I drink. And to be fair most of the time all these systems do a fantastic job, but can we rely on it?
Aeroplanes are flown expertly by computers over my head, the air traffic is controlled by other computers. These systems have traditionally been tested to the highest standards and the track record is superb. But of course it is still a commercial enterprise, and as fuel prices creep ever upward there is increasing pressure on the technology to deliver more for less cost.
I use my switch card to pay for car tax, the little computer in the post office reads my details and talks to one of many networked computers at the bank, the figure in my account file is reduced and a message sent to the post office bank computer to tell it to increase the number in it’s account. Then a message is sent to a computer at DVLA and it changes the value of a variable in a file so that when another program does it’s daily check of who has tax it will not automatically send a message to another computer to send me a fine and automatically turn me into a criminal. I never see these computers and they never see me. But they can bankrupt me accidentally or send me to jail.
At the large scale these systems are not designed by engineers, they are created by politicians and sales executives who simply don’t understand every detail of the system.
When I was a child, I was proud to be British, a country that believed in tolerance, understanding and fair play. I was proud of my country.
Now I am scared of my country and the automatic systems that rule my life.
My bank local branch has just got rid of all its cashiers, you have to use the machines now. Signatures are being replaced with PINs.
These systems give us great ability as a society and as in individual, but if we are to rely on systems then they must be reliable. Particularly government systems and essential services must be run to the best standards we can think of.
Also, there must always be a human in the loop when ever civil liberty is at stake. This is fundamental to a fair and just society, we must have the right to explain and contest. After all it’s not like we are short of people in the world to help out.
And finally, there must always be a manual back up for those odd days when things don’t quite work the way they should, just in case.

My rant about our car industry.

The media has given UK industry a bit of a battering in the last few years, in fact ever since the high profile industrial collapses in the 70’s the media dwells on doom and gloom stories rather than all the good news that the industrial sector has consistently produced.

UK industry makes some world leading products including damn fast cars.

I was talking to a bloke last weekend at an arts festival, he was an ordinary chap who happened to have no real interest in cars but as he knew I am a motoring journalist he made conversation by asking what car I would recommend. Being very proud of the UK car industry I immediately replied ‘any car as long as its made in Britain’, he looked quite astonished and said ‘I didn’t think there were any cars still made here’!
This shocked me, the UK makes over 1.5 million cars a year with factories churning out products from Jaguar, Land Rover, Lotus, Toyota, Morgan, Ford, Vauxhall, Rolls Royce, Nissan, Honda, Bentley and BMW to name but a few. About 75% of these are exported bringing in over £25bn to the UK, globally British skills, both in manufacturing and engineering design are recognised as being world class which attracts investment and creates jobs. But we very rarely hear anything about this on the news, in fact when Lotus dropped a few hundred jobs last year it made
Yes, it's designed and built here, be proud.
national news, but when Jaguar recruited about 3500 this year there is no national coverage, I find this very frustrating and also more than a little suspicious.
I am sure the fact that most of the big media organisations are tied up with the financial sector has absolutely no influence on their bias, but it is remarkable how even the phraseology favours the ‘markets’ at the expense of industry. For instance take a look at exchange rates, to sell things we make abroad we need the pound to be cheap and affordable, but the media call this situation a ‘weak’ pound. But when the pound is expensive and unaffordable, which crushes export sales, reduces production and leads to job losses, they refer to that situation as a ‘strong’ pound. Its ridiculous, until you look at the financial sector who benefit greatly when the pound is expensive, and suffer when its cheap.
The car that's seen it all, 60 years has seen UK industry go from world dominance through near colaps in the 70s and now back to global strength.

And the whole idea of being ruled by a stock market that panics like a frightened weasel, moving their money from one company to another, taking support away when its most needed, is utterly ludicrous. A system where a few chaps in blazers in London transfer money when they see their bonuses start to drop, causing a hard working company many miles away to loose several jobs even though they have a full order book, must surely be immoral?
So you might argue that as there are so many people now working in the financial sector that it balances out, when money is tight in industry it must be flowing in the financial sector? Well maybe it does, but the thing I notice is the difference in the way that money is distributed.
I read a report a while ago comparing average wages, I think it said something like average car industry wages were 25k and finance was 36k, or something like that. But the distribution of those wages is dramatically different, many people I have met who work in the city earn less than 20k, normal average office workers, many earn less than 18k and really struggle to pay the bills. The equivalent in the car industry might be factory line workers who earn a basic of about 25k and with usual overtime could be on 35 to 40k, thus allowing them more spare cash to pump back into the economy.
Toys for the super rich bring wages to British workers

By comparison at the top end of the pay scale things are the other way around, senior managers in the car industry might be on 60k, but their counterpart in finance may be on double that. At director level the difference is even greater, there are no million pound bonuses in the car industry, no seven figure salaries, and all the better for it.
There are two results of this, firstly the car industry benefits more of its employees, the wages are more evenly distributed across the whole workforce and more of the cash finds its way into the local economy. But secondly the car industry is much less appealing to the super rich, the rewards are slimmer for directors, and for investors the dividends are modest.
From Derbyshire to the Dakar rally, the best driven by engineering skill and real passion.

Over the decades the press has made industry seem grubby and declining which has damaged its image severely, now UK industry is struggling to recruit the people it needs for continued growth because generations of young workers have been put off by the media image, preferring the relative ‘glamour’ of finance.
Career choice at an early age obviously shapes the subjects kids study at school and the exams they take at the end. The media bias has driven huge numbers to study softer subjects, and whilst I have absolutely no objection to anyone taking these subjects we desperately need to rekindle the enthusiasm for learning how to make things, how to design and engineer things, how to turn dreams into tangible working products that people can buy. This mismatch of candidate’s skills and job requirements, coupled with the apathy toward industrial work puts the country in the ridiculous position of having a large pool of unemployed youngsters and an industry being forced to recruit from abroad.
Yours truely helping to turn road cars into race cars, something this country is rather good at.

This situation has to change, the notion that an economy can run on the service and financial sectors alone is clearly flawed, how can a country prosper when all it does is sell someone else’s products to its own populous?
Also the idea that we can be solely a ‘knowledge’ economy, where we design stuff but make it elsewhere is idiotic. All that happens is the detailed knowledge of a product gained by actually making it gradually migrates to the place where it is made, all the product knowledge seeps away until the manufacturing area has greater understanding and technical expertise than we do. Then what do we design? ‘For Sale’ signs maybe.
F1 companies employ thousands in the UK, would you seriousely rather have a desk job in the city?

I don’t know what the solution is, but do I know that what I see around me is terribly unfair and inefficient, like a misfiring engine it sort of works some times but keeps stalling at junctions. I think its time this country had a new engine, one driven by selling world class products globally, building real skills and doing useful jobs that benefit everyone.
The world has changed dramatically in the last few years, it is a truly global market place with massive opportunities. It is still in a state of change, but everything is starting to settle in, global players are establishing bases across the world, making networks and building brands that people in every country recognise and desire.
This phase is absolutely critical to long term success, if we miss the opportunities now someone else will definitely take them away. Now is the time to build our industry, just as it is in every country, to make it fit for the new market place. We are already leading in many areas such as luxury cars and motorsport, everyone who cares about the future should push the government to give all our industries a fighting chance by moving red tape, developing a tax system that promotes growth, investing in education and promoting our industry across the globe.
But let’s start by promoting our excellent industry to ourselves, spread the word.
UK built electric Rolls Royce shows the way ahead, lets build thease advanced skills into new industry.

Here are some links with more info:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/apr/14/uk-car-production-manufacturing-data-2011

Twin Turbo W12 vs Supercharged V8 vs 1.6 diesel estate, oh yeah!

Slightly odd Supersport group test

Both Super and Sporty

The ‘Supersport(s)’ label is shared between two of the worlds most powerful luxury cars, both Bentley and Jaguar field ultra fast chariots with force fed V engines. But whilst the Bentley is a stripped down version of its much acclaimed two seat Grand Tourer, the Jaguar is a full fat version of its four seater limo. Two very different markets, two very different cars, but one very good excuse to go thrashing fast cars round the fabulous Millbrook test tracks. Oh I’ve gone all misty eyed just thinking about it. But this is no ordinary ‘journo thrashes a fast car’ type article, oh no, there is an angle that may enlighten…
The Bentley Supersports

Just walking up to the truly magnificent Bentley Continental GT Supersports is an occasion. As I get closer details start revealing themselves, there are no less than four radiator grilles plus two elongated bonnet vents which all collude to give the impression of a barely contained massive powerhouse under the hood. The huge alloy wheels, polished to within an inch of their lives, do nothing to conceal the equally huge cross drilled brake discs and shiny black callipers with Bentley scripted in elegant white lettering. Everything about it spells power, pure and simple.
Bore quilt than a blanket factory

Inside is furnished with the obligatory herd of dead cows but with the addition of box quilted fabric inserts in the door cards and seat centres, this combined with the beautifully crafted and very usable knobs and leavers with polished and machined metals gives a feeling of a classic luxury aircraft. Maybe I should have worn a flying jacket for this one.
A knob, possibly the best knob, but still a knob.

Firing up the mighty W12 twin turbo engine is disappointingly undramatic, it just starts immediately and settles into a refined hum, surely this sort of machine should burst into life and crackle into a snarling and lumpy idle? OK, maybe that’s just me then. Being primarily a luxury car refinement is still prominent, but as the sporting variant the exhaust has been allowed a bit more freedom, the suspension is a touch firmer, its just over 100kg lighter and generally the driver feels more connected to the road. Which is nice.
Obviously with 630PS on tap from the 6 litre twin turbo W12 performance is brisk, in fact the 0-60 dash takes 3.7 seconds according to the spec sheet, but its delivered in a refined and constant wave of thrust as 800Nm of torque sweeps from a mere 1700rpm up to 5600rpm in an artificially constant level. This smoothness can be a bit deceptive, with the speed flooding in almost unnoticed. The stability control works with the 4×4 drive system delivering 60% of the thrust to the rear and allowing a tantalising amount of over steer drift when powering out of corners.
As an experiment I set it up for a long sweeping corner with a little over steer, then floored the accelerator pedal (can’t call it a throttle pedal any more as it
Arguably another knob.
isn’t directly connected to the throttles) to see what happens. Doing this in a 600bhp car a few years ago would have resulted in instant death as the back wheels spin into oblivion and the car pirouettes into the scenery, no such drama with modern cars as the stability control adjusts engine power as well as brake balance (yes it applies the brakes when you accelerate in a corner) left and right to keep the car pointing in what it thinks is the desired direction. All very clever, and essential if you are going to let ordinary members of the public loose in cars with twice the power of an original Countach! That’s why pretty much every modern car has some form of stability control, as an example going back a few years the Sierra Cosworth had a reputation of being a bit to powerful and wild, but that only had 204bhp which is less than an Audi diesel estate. How times have changed. Anyway, back to the Bentley which is still balanced on the power round that long corner…
When pushing hard the body roll is noticeable but controlled, you can feel the weight but it feels much less than the 2240kg that this ‘lightweight’ version of the Continental has. But it’s on the straights that the flying B excels, even on the damp Millbrook test track it rockets forward with unrelenting pace, luckily the massive ceramic brakes haul the speed down with even greater force, a testament to the amazing capabilities of the Pirelli 275/35ZR20 tyres. Interestingly the rear track width has been widened by two inches to improve handling, I say interesting because this now makes both the front and rear track near identical to the standard Jaguar XJ, strangely I never thought of the standard Continental GT as being a narrow car…
The last part of the stunning Millbrook ‘Alpine’ route, which I am sure used to be simply called the ‘Hill’ route before it featured in a James Bond film, is a little jump simulating a hump backed bridge. Actually it is not supposed to be a jump, drivers are supposed to slow down, but as the multitude of sump scars in the tarmac attest temptation to play can be irresistible. Anyway, the Bentley landed with minimal damage and carried on its way, ahem.
As I departed that circuit and drove gently back to the base camp situated in the middle of the complex of tracks and circuits the refined aspect of the car showed through, wafting me through roundabouts and junctions, pulling away on wet concrete T junctions with absolutely no drama, all in all a very usable and impressive car
Suportive seats, responsive controls and epic power = my Bentley of choice.
indeed. In another decade it would have been called a supercar, but in this moment it is just a blindingly fast big GT with epic presence.
Jaguar XJ Supersport

Stepping from the glitz of the Bentley, the stylish Jaguar feels almost minimalist with that wonderful thin sweeping arc of dark wood traversing the dash and door tops, and just two air vents to break up the lines, with the digital dash sunk deep into the binnacle.
Stylish interior, not sure I would choose grey though...

But here’s the thing; it is because I was just in the Bentley that the Jag looks Spartan, if I had just been driving a ‘normal’ car would it feel as empty?
And this is a crucial point, everything is relative, particularly in something as subjective as a road test. It’s all about reference points, it’s all very well for a motoring hack like me to go swanning around in super-fast luxo cars all day and say one has slightly better on the limit handling, but this is meaningless to anyone who doesn’t drive these cars on private test tracks.
So for this group test I brought in a bit of a wild card, possibly a joker, but in any case a dose of normality. The third car in this group test is the very capable Skoda Superb, the estate version, with a 1.6 diesel.
This is what normality looks like.

Now at this point you might think I have lost the plot, and obviously you might have a good point, but bare with me and hopefully things will start to make sense. No guarantees though.
A foot longer than the Bentley, but more elegant somehow.

Back to the Jaguar XJ Supersport, a totally different type of car to the Bentley with a full set of luxo seats and four zone climate control. The ‘sports’ aspect comes from the optional active differential and the supercharged 5.0 V8 engine. Pressing the start button breathes life into the surprisingly ecological recycled aluminium block, indeed it is amongst the smallest of the big engines (such as the Mercedes 6.3, the above mentioned Bentley 6.0 etc.) but punches well above its weight. Again this is a trend we will see more and more of, where manufacturers use smaller engines with more boost to deliver even higher performance levels than their older big engines, the VW Tsi uses a 1.4 to give 170bhp as an example.
Refinement is a Jaguar speciality and the car effortlessly glides away, as the speed rises the only thing that spoils the ride is the low profile tyres, a problem that infects far too many cars these days.
But the Mr Nice-guy pretence is dropped as soon as the big Jag hits the test track, flooring the loud pedal engages warp drive which turns the swooping hill roads into a high speed roller coaster and the engine note is transformed into a gruff roar by the exhaust muffler bypass valves and a very cunning device that brings a subtle sample of the superb intake noise into the cabin.
In gear acceleration on a real road feels very similar to the Bentley, the 6 speed gearbox has very swift and precise shifts (both cars use the same ZF 6 speed box) but going fast into corners the Jag seems to carry more speed with less roll and greater composure. This is not surprising when you consider that this short wheel base XJ (still a foot longer than the Bentley) weighs in at 1892Kg, that’s over 300kg less than the Bentley despite being bigger with more seats and toys.
There are two reasons for this massive weight difference, first is Jaguar’s use of an aluminium shell, a technology they first used with on the old XJ and refined on the XK. Many manufacturers have looked at ally shells and of course Audi use them on some cars, but production challenges make it a much more expensive process and requires a lot of specialist knowledge to get right. On premium cars manufacturers can sometimes pass on the extra cost, but for mid range cars it is still not commercially viable which is probably why Jaguar still use a steel shell for their XF.
But the world is changing, and now fuel consumption (and therefore CO2 emission) is under scrutiny. This may tip the balance in favour of ally shells, just look at the CO2 figures for the Bentley (388g/km) and the Jaguar (289g/km), that’s a huge difference. As laws come in that will set ever tightening limits on CO2 even supercar manufacturers will have to take action.
The second reason for the weight difference is because the Bentley has four wheel drive, so has an extra transfer box, front prop shaft, front diff and half shafts. You might be thinking that this is unnecessary baggage for a GT car, but consider this: much of Canada, Russia, Scandinavia and the new markets in China spend a fair chunk of the year covered in snow where a rear wheel drive car will struggle to get off the drive way, they also have a lot of new rich who want a car they can be seen out in, you do the maths. Right, back to the track.
It’s remarkable how similar two very different cars can feel when being thrashed round a track, both have more than enough grunt to power up the very steep twisty hills of Millbrook and fling the occupants over the crest at break neck speed. But pulling away at that damp concrete T junction in the Jag highlights the big advantage the Bentley has with its 4WD, the rear wheel drive Jaguar limits wheel spin as it maximises grip from just two wheels, and whilst there is no drama pulling away there is also less acceleration. I suspect this is why there is such a big difference in the 0-60 times with Bentley smashing it in 3.7 seconds and the Jaguar smartly stepping forward in 4.7.
Both these cars are quick, in slightly different ways, but how quick are they in real terms? And for that matter how quick is quick anyway? To find out I drove exactly the same route in the Skoda estate diesel. The first thing I notice is the noise, the estate is very good for noise in its class, but having just complained about road noise from the Supersports low profile tyres I take it all back compared to the road noise at motorway speeds from a normal car.
As I head onto the first section of track I accelerate, but nothing happens. Two things are worth noting, firstly in all three cars I started this bit at about 70mph, in a normal car flooring the accelerator at 70 will obviously result in only mild acceleration, but when you have become accustomed to the Bentley or Jaguar you automatically expect neck snapping acceleration at this speed. Secondly this section of road is up hill, in the other two cars I hadn’t even noticed it was up hill, in the normal car I am considering changing down just to keep the speed up.
After a few tight corners to get the tyres up to temperature I hit the long left hander, in the other two cars I went in slow, about 60mph, and powered out to asses how they handled hard acceleration in corners. In the normal car I struggled to get it round at all at 60mph, let alone accelerate. It was in fact a fairly tight corner, but the big cars just grabbed hold and got on with it in a way that a normal car could never do.
A very good car made a useful referance point.

Through the twisty bits I had noticed the Bentley had a bit of body roll, at a lower speed in the normal car changing direction mid corner resulted in a lurch rather than roll and enough tilt to worry about scraping the mirrors in the road, turns out that ‘bit of body roll’ was actually blooming impressive at that speed, and the fact that the Jag had even less turns out to be stunning. Again, totally different worlds.
Then there is the ability to be pushed hard all day, the hill route is relatively short, just a few miles, so the big cars had barely warmed up by the time it was over. By contrast the normal car was loosing power (modern diesels wind the power down when the intercooler or oil gets hot to preserve longevity) and the brakes just started to fade. This is no bad reflection on the car, no one in their right mind would drive a 1.6 diesel estate that hard for any length of time, it’s just silly and on anything other than a private test track it’s suicidal.
I think it’s important to get a sense of perspective, in order to better understand what is being looked at, I learned a lot about the Jaguar and Bentley by driving a Skoda Estate. Skoda also very kindly let me loose in their rather excellent VRS which is undoubtedly a fast car, in a different class of performance to the normal estate car, but again several classes behind the big boys.

All this goes to show the effectiveness of the Bentley and Jaguar suspension, brakes, control system, engine and transmissions. And indeed that of any of the very high performance cars about these days. There is a lot more engineering in one of those, and when I see the price tag the size of a house I can’t help but think that actually that’s not bad value. These cars are not just good, they are amazing.

Recall in perspective: What can possibly go wrong….again..

One in a million.

My boss told me “so that means your design will defiantly kill two people per year!”.

That was 20 years ago, when I was a fresh faced engineering graduate in my first job at a global car maker. I was designing bits of engine management system, and as ever I had gone through every type of possible failure and worked out how well it was catered for. But one very obscure scenario involved the car stalling on a hypothetical level crossing near a strong radio transmitter, a bit tenuous but it is a situation that could happen, I had gone through the figures and worked out that it was a million to one chance that the engine would not restart, resulting in something bad involving a train and sudden localised distortion to the car (ok, a crash).

Danger being recognized

I thought that this was a remote chance, but my then boss pointed out that the systems would be put on about 2 million cars per year in Europe, hence his terminal conclusion.

I redesigned it. No one had to die.

But even so, I am sure there could be even more obscure situations I had never even thought of, I probably could have spent years going through more and more complex scenarios, but the the car would never have been made. So we have to draw the line somewhere.

How common are uncommon faults?

So its with a great deal of sympathy that I read about Toyota’s sticky pedal problem, millions of cars work fine, yet a handful of freaks necessitate a total recall. You just cant take chances, even if most of the cars are absolutely fine.

Toyota are no worse than Ford, Mercedes and all the rest, all volume products suffer from occasional problems, largely due to the scale of production and of course because we want them cheap, and that’s not going to change any time soon.

When an industry has to make very complicated machines, that are used by the general public, and have to endure a vast array of harsh environments, things are going to be difficult. And when this problem is massively compounded by having to make the car as cheap as possible, something has to give.

Times this set of problems by the millions of cars made every year and the law of averages is definitely not on the side of car makers.

If you think about it, the mere fact that when something does go wrong it makes the headlines tells us something about the utterly fantastic job that all these companies usually do.

If the average Joe knew anything of the vast amount of sheer hard work that goes into creating cheap, economical, useful and reliable cars they would bow down in reverence, and those that fancy their chances at suing for spurious accidents would hang their head in shame.

But hardly anyone knows about all that fantastic engineering work, it doesn’t make sexy TV programs, it’s not vacuous and glamorous enough to make it into the glossies. So every one just accepts that every machine should work perfectly no matter what, and are utterly surprised on the very rare occasion that it doesn’t.

Cars are amazing.

Here’s a challenge for you; think of a machine that has to work in heavy rain, baking sun, snow, ice, deserts, tarmac, cobble stones, at temperatures between -40 to +50 C, last over a decade whilst being shaken, accelerated, decelerated by novice users in a crowded and complex environment.

There are no other machines, just motor vehicles, which have to contend with all this.

But it doesn’t stop there, the engine is retuned every combustion cycle, hundreds of times each second. The suspension analyses the road and adapts to suit, the auto gearbox monitors the drivers ‘style’ and changes the way it works to please them. The brakes check wheel speed thousands of times a second and deduce when a tyre is about to skid and relieve brake pressure just before it happens.

Components have to operate faultlessly for millions of cycles, if an engine or drive-line fault develops then the systems must identify it, adjust the mode of operation to minimise risk and alert the driver, just like having an expert mechanic on board.

In addition the car has to be comfy, economical, perform well, have a really good sound system and be near silent in operation.

Not even the Space Shuttle has to contend with this level of sophistication.

And here is the kicker; as well as coping with all that, it also has to perform special functions in a crash. We have multiple air bags, who’s operation is tuned to the ‘type’ of crash detected, we have automatic engine cut, hazard indication, seatbelt pre-tensioning and some cars even ring for help.

Name me one other machine that has to detect, reliably, when it is about to be destroyed and then deploy safety mechanisms during the actual process of destruction. You’ll struggle with that one.

Now this feat of engineering would be amazing even with an unlimited budget, but the fact is that cars are made as cheaply as possible, which just take the achievement from amazing to utterly astonishing.

Please take a few moments to look at your own car, and marvel. And if one part goes wrong, be sympathetic to the scale of the problem engineers face.

Media hype

During this recall, the media could have played a very useful role and helped society, I say ‘could have’ because what they actually did was the complete opposite.

What they could have done is reported actual news, facts presented objectively such as ‘a small numbers of cars may have a fault causing the pedal to be stiff’. That is a fact, it gets the info over simply and effectively, you know what is being said. Simple.

They could have gone further and said something like ‘if your pedal feels stiff visit your dealer, but first check the floor mat hasn’t got stuck under the pedal’. That would be helpful.

But they didn’t do that.

No, what actually got reported was ‘mum of five in death plunge tragedy’ and ‘is your car a ticking time bomb of doom?’. Stupid, dramatised gossip that conveys absolutely no useful information.

But of course this scare mongering helps to boost sales of the current media bilge, so expect more useless crap in the future about every important storey.

And this is a real problem, not only because it leaves us all badly informed and scared, but because the car companies now know that being honest and open has become the wrong thing to do.

All media has a responsibility, and its time they faced up to it.

People are getting to be useless.

And this brings me to a very important point; cars are so reliable these days that people are totally unable to cope with a simple problem; I would have thought that if the pedal stays down then either put your toe under it and pull it up or drop it in neutral, park up and switch off. Easy, but most people have lost the ability to cope with any sort of problem, and that is scary.

I say scary because we depend more an more on technology, cars, electricity supply, computers, the internet, mobile phones, the list goes on. And for the most part the technology serves us amazingly well, but like all things it can fail.

I remember in the 70’s there were power cuts, no problem; the lights went out so we lit candles, life goes on. We communicated by actually talking to people, we were entertained by actually doing things, we worked by going out and making physical things.

But now, oh dear, if the power fails we seem to be doomed to sitting in a freezing dark house unable to phone a friend or do any work on the computer. ‘Doomed I say, doomed, captain’ (although that phrase probably wont mean a thing to younger readers).

Now don’t get me wrong, I am a great fan of technology. As an engineer I work on car technology that won’t see the glowing lights of a showroom for maybe seven years, as a writer I would be lost without the word processor and its fantastic ability to correct my abysmal spelling. Oh yes ineedy I just cant get enough of the techy stuff.

What I am scared of is the way people are loosing the ability to do things for themselves. To even bother trying to solve problems seems to great a challenge, the mind is being numbed and switched off, its like intentionally loosing the ability to walk just because you can afford a wheel chair.

The first though now seems to be ‘who should I call about this problem’, and not what it should be ‘what can I do to solve this problem’.

People have to be more proactive, just like we used to be, and much less reactive and just plain pathetic.

Mind you, I suppose if there were to be a mass technology failure and every useless person was, well, useless, then maybe Engineers will rise as a united force like a waking giant and take over the world. So its not all bad. 😉

Technology marches on.

Here is an interesting observation: most drivers don’t want to be there.

Unlike enthusiasts, such as myself, who really get a deep enjoyment and fulfilment from driving, in the mass market most car owners don’t actually like driving at all, it’s just become a necessity of modern life. That’s why so many of them don’t pay attention and would rather chat on the phone, listen to the radio or just stare into the distance like a slack jawed zombie.

Cars are a very strange phenomenon in that respect, where else would you find a large, heavy and complex piece of machinery operated by anyone who wants one? It wouldn’t happen with lathes, welding kit or submarines, but with cars we just accept it.

And because of the non-professional nature of the vast majority of car owners, technology is being developed to meet their needs. That is; making the car make most of the decisions.

We are already seeing Volvos with ‘collision avoidance’ brakes which do an emergency stop before you drive up the arse of the car in front. Many cars have adaptive cruise control using radar sensors to move with the flow of traffic, some cars have lane assistance which nudge the steering to keep the car between the two white lines. And fully autonomous cars are in development, you just get in, tell it where to go and it drives you there.

To many this is automotive heaven, just like having a chauffeur, and takes the irritating burden of ‘having to do some driving’ out of a journey completely. Plus there are safety advantages which make a very compelling argument, the fact is that nearly all accidents are caused by the driver doing something really dumb, so by taking the driver out of the system lives would be saved. And that argument alone is powerful enough to kill the ‘drivers car’ stone dead, no arguments, it is simply infeasible to argue that autonomous cars should not be compulsory just because we want to have a little bit of fun.

But to enthusiasts this is automotive hell, no control, no involvement, no enjoyment, nothing.

And it also take a lot of skill and judgement away too, what if I want to drive on the left of my lane to get a good view past the truck I am about to overtake? Will the lane control system let me? What if I need to gently nudge my driveway gate open because its blown shut? Will the collision avoidance system let me?

But what drives technological development is consumer demand, so if we want cars to be ‘drivers cars’, totally under our command, then we have to make our voice heard. Not only that but the voice must have a strong and sound argument, and it has to be heard right now.

Complexity.

What’s the greatest challenge facing car design? Meeting carbon emissions targets is a damn good one, as is crash safety. But by far the biggest problem facing car design is complexity, and its a problem that is being hidden.

With all the highly sophisticated systems on board, such as engine control, ABS, crash avoidance, gearbox tuning and even sat-nav, knowing exactly how each part will react to the behaviour of another part has been almost impossible.

But modern cars don’t just have a set of independent systems, they are linked together. This has provided some amazing cross-function capability, such as traction control where wheel slip is detected by the ABS system and the engine system reduced power to suit, and it has given us seamless automatic gear shifts where the gearbox talks to the engine to ensure the speed and power are matched perfectly as a gear is changed.

More importantly it has enabled much greater safety, for example if the brakes fail then the electronic hand brake system can lend a hand and the engine and gearbox can work together to increase engine braking.

It can even compensate for driver incompetence; some people panic in an emergency and press both pedals to the floor, modern cars detect this and simple apply the brakes and return the engine to idle. This simple step has saved lives.

Now, the concepts of integrated safety and functionality are simple to understand, the arguments for and against them are again fairly simple. Even politicians can understand them.

But the devil is in the detail, and when you get down to the actual computer code it gets mind bogglingly complicated.

I will give you a relatively simple example. In order to reliably detect if the accelerator pedal sensor has failed, the pedal has at least two independent circuits, the signals are compared to see if they agree, that way if a wire is broken then the system will detect it and the engine can be safely returned to idle. But it has to do more; what if there is a mechanical failure such as a broken return spring? Well, the signal is also analysed for movement so that if it stays inexactly the same position for too long then there is a fair chance its stuck. But how long is ‘too long’?

This is where it gets tricky. The signal is also compared to other signals, such as the brake pedal as mentioned above. But even if both brake and accelerator are applied at the same time, what if the fault is not in the accelerator pedal, nor in the driver panicking, but in the brake pedal sensor? This could lead to a tragic loss of power when the driver needs to accelerate out of danger, such as on a railway crossing.

So one layer of complexity involves where do you set the limits, how much analysis do you do and how many other systems do you compare with?

But there is more complexity, oh yes, much more. What if the various systems are not entirely in tune with each other? For instance when braking, as the speed drops the gearbox changes down and requests the engine speed to rise to match, so the throttle is opened. Usually the various signals are perfectly matched and this works seamlessly, but what if the signal from the gearbox results in a momentary surge of power from the engine?

So clearly the teams developing and tuning the brakes, gearbox and engine have to work together to ensure that under every different level of braking and speed combination, everything matches up. And that is a lot of work.

However, it gets more complicated. Many companies buy in certain systems, maybe the ABS from Bosch, the gearbox from GM, possibly even the engine might come from another company, or another division in a different country. And even within those teams, parts of the computer control code may be outsourced to other divisions or companies, bringing another layer of remoteness to the design.

See where this is leading? Well, to greater complexity and less understanding of what every part has in it.

That is just one example of one system interaction, but there are many more, and each system may have further unintended interaction too. A classic on is with ‘stability control’ systems, when accelerating out of a corner a driven wheel might start to loose traction, so the traction control system will apply the brake calliper on that wheel to keep it under control. This causes the car to veer off course slightly so the stability control applies the brake calliper on the other side to balance it out. Net result is you end up accelerating with the brakes on!

Now modern cars are introducing collision avoidance, lane control and other complex systems which all have to work in harmony with all the other systems in all the infinite combinations of circumstance.

I believe that it is now impossible to accurately asses how such a car will react in all conditions.

This is true not only for cars, but in many of the systems we rely on today, from automatic number plate recognition and speeding fines, military automatic targeting and smart weapons, to the DNA database and even the way we use the internet.

The potential for technology to assist is immense, but it has to be understood that we have now lost control of every detail. So how far do we let the machines dictate to us, and how much override can we allow to fallible humans?

The answer to this will dictate the future of society and quite possibly our fate as a species.

UK manufacturing and global finance

The phrase ‘British Industry’ is usually used in a doom laden article lamenting the ‘decline’ since the magnificent days when we were the workshop of the world.

This really annoys me.

You see, it’s just plain wrong. The fact is that our manufacturing sector has actually grown significantly in the last 60 years, how many of you knew that? Just looking at my chosen industry, the UK exports over a million cars a year, Jaguar Land Rover brought in over a billion pounds into the UK economy last year alone, I call that pretty successfully actually.

Are we being fed anti-manufacturing propaganda?

Consider this: When the Pound is high against other currencies we imports are cheap and our companies can’t export competitively, so we import more than export and the balance of payments shifts the wrong way. The terminology that the financial sector use to describe the value of the Pound is biased in their favour. They call it ‘Strong’ when in fact it would be more accurate to describe it as ‘Expensive’. When the Pound is lower against other currencies we can export fantastically well and shift the balance of payments in our favour, but they describe this situation as ‘weak’ when it should be called ‘cheap’.

 

There was a program on the BBC recently where that bloke from Dragons Den wobbled on about how the UK was still great as a world manufacturing force. But even his argument was deeply and obviously flawed. To summarize my understanding of it; there are three stages in getting a product to market: Design, manufacture and sales/marketing.

Their logic analysed the potential profit margin for each stage and suggested that design and sales had high margins, but manufacturing had only a slim profit margin. Which is usually true, but misses some fundamental points.

Firstly, in my experience, as soon as you divorce design from manufacturing you get worse products, quality suffers and there are more niggling problems to be sorted when a new product goes into production. This is because understanding how a product is made is vital to design. A typical problem I see a lot of is where a component cannot be removed for service because no room was allowed for a mechanics arm to get in. There are some cars where the engine has to be removed to change the spark plugs for instance. But even during manufacture if a component is troublesome to fit then it will be fitted badly, it’s really very simple. Just walking down the production line and seeing what happens is vital if the design is going to be right first time.

 

This separation of skills is running deeper all the time, not just here but world wide. A designer of engines must have excellent Computer Aided Design skills for sure, but this has to be backed up by a fundamental understanding of how engine work to avoid making silly mistakes that look good on the screen.

Personally I think the industry would be better off if every ‘designer’ had to build and race a kit car before they were considered for a job. Shame that’s not practical.

Another problem with ‘outsourcing’ production is that all the expertise generated from the immense amount of work needed to get a new product into production is also outsourced. This flow of essential knowledge away from the design can only leave the design facility weaker and the production facility stronger.

A good case study is the relation the UK has with China, some very effective partnerships have been set up where a product is designed and sold in the UK but made much more cheaply (due to the afore mentioned cost of the Pound) in China. But it strikes me that as China develops, all this product knowledge is building and it is an obvious step for them to eventually benefit from the design stage profit margin themselves and cut us out of the loop. Thinking that we will remain the best place for design when all the knowledge and experience is building elsewhere is tragically naive. China has a huge number of very talented designers so it can only be a matter of time before this element is taken from us too.

So this would just leave us with just the sales function, selling foreign products to ourselves. I fail to see how this can generate a net wealth in the UK. And the fact is that with an ever increasing percentage of sales being done over the internet even this function could be largely handled overseas.

In that TV program they suggested that it was a cunning idea to concentrate on the design and sales sector and outsource the manufacturing, demonstrating successful UK companies that have done just this. But then they said that although this model works very well already, it will have to work even better due to the poor balance of payments caused by all the imports! That would be the imports of the stuff we don’t manufacture here then? Rather a fundamental flaw wouldn’t you say?

 

My fear is that ‘finance people’ just don’t get it, they don’t understand the real world, they have built this fantasy world of virtual money that we all now have to depend on and it has no real substance. It can crumble just because of people getting a bit worried, sound companies can be destroyed due to share holder confidence collapsing without any material change in the way the company works. That is just plain wrong, where people work hard and well but loose their jobs for no real reason is morally wrong.

However, I also think it is wrong to suggest the complete opposite where the UK handles all three stages exclusively and has no involvement with other countries, after all we need to export and to trade with other countries to get raw materials that we simply don’t have. And besides, I rather like a cosmopolitan marketplace.

The fact is that the marketplace is now global, and all the better for it. As the total market size has dramatically expanded a number of UK companies have enjoyed greater sales volumes, the audience for our products is immense now. And also foreign investment in the UK by companies such as Nissan, Honda and Tata, has allowed expansion that was unthinkable when the companies could only draw on a UK fund.

 

But as the expansion is filled this current bonanza will settle out and eventually recede, more players will enter the market to serve the greater audience and competition will get every bit as hard as it was a few years ago.

European super-cars are being gobbled up by the new wealthy legions in the east, but as there is just as much engineering talent over there it wont be long before there are just as many Chinese and Indian super-car manufacturers too.

 

So the bonanza should be enjoyed, but we must plan for a harder future and get our manufacturing base in good shape to the tough competition to come. And part of this equation is ensuring the Pound is cheap enough to make our country viable.

I hope that there will be room enough for all countries to compete successfully, only those that have failed to adjust to the new reality will fail. It is up to us to ensure we are ready and fit for the fight.