Motoring journalists talk a lot about ‘platforms’ and ‘platform strategies’. They’re important, not just because they are the basic building blocks of any car, but because they are also the most expensive part of the car creation process.
A new platform – and the factory production line that accompanies it – is a huge investment. An investment that has to be either ameliorated over a production run counted in millions, or shared with other brands.
However, there’s evidence that the short-cycle expense and complexity of designing and tooling a platform is coming to a natural end. The good news for carmakers is that a platform launched today could last well over a decade; with only modest updates half way through its life.
One such platform is that under the current Mercedes C-Class. At the unveiling in Germany I asked Dieter Zetsche, boss of Daimler AG, how long the new C-Class platform would be in production.
He surprised me by saying that it would probably ‘cycle’ for 14 years – two seven year product cycles. The ‘electrical architecture’ would probably be re-designed after seven years, but the structure would be substantially unchanged.
Likewise, on an analyst’s visit to the mysterious Ford Group factory near Chongching in China, my colleague asked the factory rep how long the Focus 2 would remain in production. He said ‘maybe 20 years’.
Bonkers? Well a Volvo engineer recently told me that they were coming up against the limit of physics when designing steel structures for crash resistance. In future, he said, they would be concentrating on electronic crash counter-measures.
Platforms are unlikely to need to grow much, either. Humans are not going to see a growth spurt of the kind they managed in the second half of the C20th. Good design and galvanization have also rendered most cars near-rustproof.
When I drove the Chevrolet Cruze earlier this week, I lifted the bonnet and pondered that the understructure I could see was here to stay.
GM’s new Delta platform is designed to take both conventional transmissions as well as the battery packs needed for the Chevrolet Volt. Such flexibility should cover the requirements of future models for quite a few years to come.