Barriers to innovation

Departments - Editor's note

September 22, 2015

Robert Schoenberger

Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.

There are a lot of would-be innovators in the motor vehicles world who would disagree with that old adage. In this issue of Today’s Motor Vehicles (see pages 24 and 54), leaders at companies touting new materials and processes say simply having a better way of doing things isn’t enough.

You need mountains of test data showing vast improvement in costs or quality, an advocate within the target company willing to champion your cause, and the financial stability to wait months if not years for a big order. Simply having the best technology isn’t enough when trying to woo companies that spend billions of dollars every year on research and development.

Things happen much faster in other industries. The first generation Apple iPad, released in 2010, lacked a camera, weighed 1.5 lb, and had a screen resolution of 1,024 x 768. The iPad Air, released three years later, had dual cameras, weighed 1 lb, and had 2,048 x 1,536 screen resolution.

Is the automotive industry incapable of or not interested in that level of innovation?

Clearly, cars and trucks have gotten better in recent years. Fuel efficiency has been climbing for most vehicles without sacrificing horsepower or safety, new smart phone-friendly technologies are common, and automakers didn’t even blink at the requirement to install rearview cameras in all vehicles by 2018.

The challenge is the scale and risk acceptance of the industry.

Companies spend roughly $1 billion to design each new vehicle offering, and the investments in tooling for manufacturing can run nearly as high. With that much invested, companies need to get production rolling and cars to dealers as quickly as possible to begin recouping that investment. If unproven new technology could delay product launch by even a day, costs could become unacceptably high.

And companies want years’ worth of test results, not a few case studies. For a product developed within the past six months, it’s hard to show how things will perform after 15 years of constant use. But, as General Motors has learned with last year’s massive recall of Chevrolet Cobalts for faulty ignition switches, product liability problems can crop up years after a vehicle has gone off the market. If technology suppliers can’t provide long-term reliability of new systems, the OEMs won’t be interested.

OEMs seem a bit more open to innovations from long-term, trusted partners. Many of the new, high-tech systems showing up on new vehicles come from major Tier 1 suppliers – companies that also spend billions of dollars every year on R&D.

Still, clever, small companies that truly have developed better mousetraps can wither and die while waiting for someone to take a chance on a new way of doing things.

Jim English, president of cutting fluids supplier Tool-X, has a series of recommendations in this issue about how the industry could support creative companies.

What do you think? Are OEMs doing enough to support creative startups? What more could companies do to encourage innovation? Write me at to share your ideas for sparking innovation.