Gene goes on an automotive safari


I just spent some time out at Easter Jeep Safari in Moab, Utah, playing around on severe off-road terrain. It’s amazing the kinds of obstacles a properly set-up vehicle equipped for extreme usage can negotiate. The vehicles range from stock, to highly modified, with huge tires, suspension redesigns for improved articulation and ground clearance, as well as stronger axles and body modifications. The variations are highly personalized, but are generally based upon the iconic Jeep Wrangler. The Wrangler traces its heritage back to WWII and has served as the off-road vehicle of choice for many years. It is probably the most highly re-engineered vehicle on the planet.

All the activity around this event got me thinking about how vehicles are being engineered – and to what goals and expectations. We can talk about business goals and marketing and engineering, and we can talk about customer expectations; and then we can talk about how the business aspects connect to customer expectations.

This can spiral into quite a complicated drama. Should we limit this discussion to the new vehicle sale and the original buyer? Or should we think about the vehicle’s extended life, like the Wrangler experiences? Some vehicles are simply bought, used and discarded. Others are ‘keepers’ way past the typical 10 or 12 years of life. How does this affect engineering and testing?

As we strive to get a handle on this drama, engineers ponder and discuss duty cycles and work to establish documented testing regimes that are supposed to simulate expected life usage. Duty cycles are basically answers to the six fundamental questions of customer usage: who, what, when, where, why and how. The expectation is that once duty-cycle tests are properly established and passed, customer expectations will be satisfied.

We must know the customer to establish duty cycles. The trouble starts when you embark on quantifying the customer. How should it be done? Statistically? Percentage-based? Maximums? Medians? Averages? A range of users exists, from gentle to downright hostile. And in what part of the globe will the vehicle operate, what weather and corrosion conditions? Vehicles are prevalent across all continents excluding Antarctica, hence a broad range of environments may need to be considered. And what do we expect as a vehicle lifetime? 10 years? 20 years? 100,000 miles? 200,000 miles? First owner? Multiple owners? While the warranty lasts?

Many possible approaches to defining a duty cycle could be taken. No matter how logically and statistically driven the effort is, it is always based upon levels of assumptions that are key drivers of the conclusions reached. It’s amusing how a study of a complicated subject requiring much wandering and floundering is ultimately presented as a logical and sequential progression to a solution.

Alongside the customer-driven challenge we can add commercial pressures to the equation. A cost-benefit analysis (CBA) might reveal a desire to satisfy the customer, with not a penny more of added expense. Why waste corporate resources and dollars on poor business practice?

It’s clear then, that the duty cycle question needs to be examined from many different viewpoints before a decision is made on what to do. Considerable meditation, judgment and historical experience are required to pull together a reasonable duty cycle. No canned or analytical formula is enough to produce a rational, satisfactory conclusion.

There is also brand image to consider. If it is strong in the area of durability or performance, will the new vehicle survive when driven as presented in advertising and media? Have we started whittling away brand strength by applying too much CBA to setting duty cycle expectations?

Fringe customers use the vehicles harder – whether for a trackday or off-road in Moab. Examples of actual experience compared with brand positioning and expectations come to mind: frames that bent upward during desert driving; axles that bent and broke; engines that overheated or lost oil pressure during a trackday; or a general loss of vehicle reliability with new models. Sure, we can dismiss fringe usage as outside the warranty, but hasn’t the customer bought the car with expectations of using it as presented and because of the manufacturer’s reputation? What’s the long-term impact on brand posturing and reputation?

Some OEMs require their performance models to survive 24 hours of continuous track duty. Kudos to such dedication! The customer’s experience supports such claims and hence brand reputation is enhanced.

We might conclude that fringe customer usage and experience has a multiplication factor associated with it in establishing brand reputation and customer respect. Is this factored into business analysis and practice? After all, should not duty cycles be used to verify product performance and to enhance brand reputation?


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