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TODAY'S TURMOIL IN PERSPECTIVE
The spark ignition engine had, as indicated earlier, no over-all intrinsic advantage over the steam engine in the early 1900's when the basic auto industry decisions were made. That is not the case today.
Now that hundreds of millions of spark ignition engines have been built and operated to exhaustion, design engineers' ability to predict their performance is great. Making an engineering change in the design of this engine introduces an element of risk concerning its future performance that is very small compared to the risk involved in predicting the performance of any alternative engine.
Further, the costs involved in tooling up to produce spark ignition engines with minor design changes are small compared to the costs that must be incurred to produce any other engine. For the spark ignition engine, only the portions to be changed require investment; for other engines, the entire production capability must be created.
Over the short term, therefore, an American auto company is faced with a choice of making a limited investment to modify an engine of known performance to achieve a result of which it can be highly confident versus making a large investment to build a new power plant of approximately equivalent performance about which it is very unsure. Little wonder, then, that the industry chooses to adapt the spark ignition engine to the new demands being placed upon it.
The auto industry has tried to make its values and its approach clear. 38
What has happened ... is that an additional design criterion has been added to the automotive powerplant. In addition to effectiveness, efficiency, cost and convenience, we are now giving higher attention to environmental side effects.
Every product as complicated as an automotive powerplant must, of course, represent a compromise of many tradeoffs. And it is the designers' job to respond first to government mandates and then, to the extent possible, make the tradeoffs between these criteria in such a way that the individual car owner and the community at large both get the optimum cost/benefit ratio.
Of course, it is a long tedious process to find that optimum by refinement and trial-and-error, by creative engineering and carefully tested innovation. It is this process which the spark-ignition gasoline, piston engine went through for 50 or so years with the original criteria.
With the introduction of an additional criterion in the optimization process, there obviously are shifts to be made, new tradeoffs to consider with the spark-ignition gasoline piston engine; and the possibility arises that totally new powerplants may be optimum in the new ball game.
* Agnew. William G., General Motors, statement before the Senate Commerce committee on the Environment and on Science, Technology and Commerce, May 14, 1973.
In addition, along with the introduction of the new environmental criterion, there are even some drastic changes appearing in the original criteria. Our transportation system itself is beginning to change in concept as a result of population pressures, thus altering what we consider to be effectiveness; and the energy crunch is inducing a new outlook on the efficiency of automotive powerplants.
The design criteria for automotive powerplants have never changed faster than they are today, and yet the complexity of the optimization process has also never been greater. Time is required for optimization, time to invent new things, time to try new concepts, time to experiment with new combinations, time to make errors, learn what went wrong and correct them. The automotive powerplant designer is likely to go too far one way or the other in his attempt to optimize; that's how
you find an optimum. The industry has stated its readiness to change from the spark ignition engine to some other engine should the facts so dictate. Mr. Agnew's statement includes a reiteration of that readiness (“the possibility arises that totally new powerplants may be optimum ..?").
The auto industry is very large, however, and very complex. Technological forecasters studying the factors affecting such industries have concluded : 39
The speed with which a substitution takes place is not a simple measure of the pace of technical advance, or of manufacturing, marketing, distribution, or any other individual substitution elements. It is, rather, a measure of the unbalance in these factors between the competitive elements of the substitution. When a substitution begins, the new product, process, or service struggles hard to improve and demonstrate its advantages over the dominant product, process, or service. As the new substitution element becomes recognized by commanding a few percent of the total market, the threatened element redoubles its own efforts to maintain or improve its position. Thus, the pace of technical innovative effort-indeed, the competitive pace of all aspects of the substitutionmay increase markedly during the course of the substitution struggle ..
The rate at which a given substitution proceeds seems to be determined by the complex interplay of economic forces re
sponding to the inherent superiority of a new method. In the auto industry, technological change seems to take a long time—at least it seems like a long time while one is in the period of change. Today's spark ignition engine produces about 10 times the horsepower per pound of engine that Henry Ford's best efforts could produce in 1900, but all seven decades have been needed for this progress to occur. In the area of technological substitution, these time lags
Fisher. J. C. and R. H. Pry, "A Simple Substitution Model of Technological Change," Technological Forecasting and Social Change, vol. 3, pp. 75-88 (1971).
are also apparent. It took 20 years for power brakes to be installed on half the new cars, 15 years for air conditioning on half the new cars, 10 years for power steering on half the new cars. 40
Other innovations have failed to pass the tests of performance plus customer acceptance. A typical example is glass-fiber-reinforced plastic bodies to replace metals—this experiment has revealed a combination of losing attributes whose significance prior to market testing was greatly underestimated. Another innovation currently under evaluation is automatic speed regulation available as an option on some General Motors cars; this one may fail as a result of unexpected consumer hesitance.
These examples of both successful and unsuccessful innovation display characteristics about the process of technological change that are common to each other and common to the same process in other industries.41 These characteristics include:
(1) The tendency of innovations to emerge from outside the industry. Several recent studies have shown this happening at a three to one ratio. The reason for this is that external industries do not have the commitment to the existing technology and do not have to worry about losing their existing market. If one considers Honda, Mazda, and Mercedes as outside the industry because they have had essentially no penetration in the American market, then the evolving pattern of innovation in response to emission control requirements is similar to that experienced in most other industries.
(2) Incremental commitment to innovations. Innovation typically occurs as a series of stages of increasing commitment of resources on the part of the innovator. In this way, by testing at stages the potential superiority of the innovation, the innovator can minimize his risk of error. The dozens of false starts in the auto industry at the turn of the century illustrate the hazards. Even with careful testing, unsuccessful innovations may reach commercial production, as with the fiberglass body of the Corvette. Studies of technological innovation show that this period of testing takes from a few to 20 or more years, depending on the state of the art, complexity of the technology, the investment, and the need for the innovation. Longer product life will lengthen testing time of prototypes.
(3) Substitution occurs relatively slowly. The replacement of one technology by another never occurs instantly; generally, substitution takes 10 to 25 years. The superiority of the new technology over the old is important in determining displacement time, although numerous examples exist where people have refused to accept new and superior technologies when the changes conflicted with existing cultural patterns. A significant feature of substitution is that typically the first introductions serve as experimental models, providing actual use experience. Until the new technology is proved, neither the innovator nor the purchaser is likely to commit himself substantially. Long product life will tend to draw out this process.
* Blackman, A. W., Jr., “A Mathematical Model for Trend Forecasts." Technological Forecasting and Social Change, vol. 3, 1972, pp. 441-52.
€ Rogers, Everett M., Diffusion of Innovations, New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1962.
Based on these characteristics of the innovation process, it that any replacement for the spark ignition engine will face a lo difficult task. The spark ignition engine has an inherent supe over alternatives by virtue of its experience over a half centu the production of hundreds of millions of units. No alternative plant has at this time any clear-cut intrinsic advantage over the ignition engine in terms of cost or performance. The product life auto power plant is long, necessitating longer periods of testin thus extending both the testing and substitution periods. Most natives are still in the period of development; prototypes of stes gines are being tested in some buses, electrically powered for have found a market in warehouses. The only alternatives to be mercially produced are the diesel, which for trucks has been pro in quantity for 50 years (20 years for cars), and two spark ig variants, stratified charge and the Wankel. The status of these natives correlates with the stage of their development and fit pattern of innovation.