What’s In a Name?

Ford is transforming what it going on in what was once a traditional transmission plant

By Gary S. Vasilash

While what has long been known as the “Ford Van Dyke Transmission Plant,” a 2-million square-foot factory in suburban Detroit, didn’t make a transmission until 1993, even though it had been established in 1968 (when it was a suspension components plant), the sign visible on Van Dyke Avenue, after a generation is undergoing a change.

Now it is the “Van Dyke Electric Powertrain Center.”

Sign of change. (Image: Ford)

Inside they are going from just making the classic step-gear (a.k.a., “automatic”) transmission to electric motors and electric transaxles for full electric and hybrid vehicles.

Production of the Ford eMotor will begin at the plant this summer. Early next year the electric transmission (“eTrans”) manufacture will commence.

Ford spent $150-million in the plant to prepare it for its new role.

Things are clearly changing.

Chips: Yes There Is a Difference

Back in ’92, Michael Boskin, then Bush 41 economic advisor, said it didn’t matter whether a country produced potato chips or microchips. Guess what?

By Gary S. Vasilash

“CEO Summit on Semiconductor and Supply Chain Resilience.”

That’s what a meeting held yesterday in Washington and Cyberspace was named, which included CEOs from a number of companies, including General Motors, Ford and Stellantis.

The point is that there is no resilience in the supply chain for semiconductors.

Evidently it is something that hadn’t been deemed to be necessary.

But then there was the pandemic.

Then people suddenly started working from home. Students started studying from home.

And there was a recognition that—oops!—the home compute equipment wasn’t (1) up to snuff and/or (2) not in sufficient numbers to accommodate the whole family.

Meanwhile, people at companies like Sony and Microsoft were busy working on their new gaming consoles. And things like PlayStations and Xboxes require sophisticated microprocessors.

The auto industry shut down for a couple of months last year. There were thoughts that it would be down for longer.

When you’re not making cars and trucks you don’t need lots of things, from steel to tires to. . .semiconductors.

But the auto industry came back.

And the number of semiconductors on the shelves began decreasing—and not replenished just-in-time, or at any time.

Some vehicles were built without control modules that would be added later. Which is not exactly a tenable way of doing things.

So factories were put on hold. When you don’t have the parts, you can’t build the vehicles.

Consequently, the meeting in Washington.

Within the Biden $2-trillion infrastructure plan there is money—some $50-billion—for semiconductor manufacture.

Odds are, the $2-trillion infrastructure plan is going to remain just that. A plan. It is going to be difficult to get sufficient support to pass it.

President Biden told attendees at the meeting that there is bi-partisan support for addressing the semiconductor dearth.

There ought to be. Left or right, urban or rural, 99% or 1%–this country’s infrastructure is predicated on private vehicle drivership and everyone needs one (or economic access to one).

As vehicles get more technologically sophisticated, the number of chips needed is only going to grow.

If this issue isn’t significantly and substantially addressed, then not only is this going to affect the vehicle manufacturers, but everyone who would like to get a new vehicle.

ZF Investing Big in Truck Transmissions

One of the consequences of the pandemic is the increase in the number of commercial vehicles on the roads—as in, for example, all of those FedEx, UPS and Amazon Prime trucks crowding in suburban neighborhoods like a street in New York City pre-pandemic.

Who knew there was such a demand for home deliveries?

So to meet the demands for medium-duty commercial trucks (as well as buses and heavy-duty pickups), ZF has announced that it is investing $200-million in its plant in Gray Court, South Carolina, to produce its ZF PowerLine 8-speed automatic transmission.

This is a new transmission, as it went into production at the ZF HQ production facility in Friedrichshafen, Germany, at the end of 2020; the factory in South Carolina is scheduled to start exclusively supplying the North American market in 2023.

ZF PowerLine 8-speed transmission for truck applications. (Image: ZF)

A couple points about the transmission:

  • Although it is an 8-speed, Christian Feldhaus, Director Commercial Vehicle Driveline Technology North America, ZF, says, “ZF PowerLine proves equal, but in most cases, higher performance and efficiency than other transmissions with 9 and 10 speeds.” Or more gears are not necessarily better.
  • In addition to which, although there is increased attention to electric commercial vehicles—such as those Amazon will be getting from Rivian and General Motors’ new BrightDrop—one might wonder about a transmission ostensibly for ICE applications. Feldhaus: “With its modular design, PowerLine is prepared for mild hybrid and plug-in hybrid variants, making it a true technology bridge to future mobility.”

Arguably, post-pandemic there may be a falling off of home-delivery demands. But odds are people who have found it to be a convenient way to get things may stay with it.

So there’s going to be a need for a lot of transmissions.–gsv

Polestar: The Green Car Company You’ve Probably Not Heard of (Yet)

Polestar is a brand that you may not be familiar with at the moment. But that is likely to change, as it is dedicated to producing electric vehicles (EVs) that combine Swedish style with performance.

Polestar was established in 2017 as an independent brand by Volvo Cars and Geely Holding. (This is a little complicated because Volvo Cars in under the Geely umbrella, so the way to think about it is that it is a company that Volvo developed and that Geely is underwriting.)

The forthcoming Polestar Precept. Stylish. Electric. (Images: Polestar)

There are presently two models, that the company has on offer, the Polestar 1, a hybrid that is exceedingly limited in production, and the Polestar 2, a 2020 model that is a high-volume sedan that offers AWD and 300 kW from the motor. There will then be the Polestar 3, an SUV, and then the Precept, a car that emphasizes three definitional aspects of the brand: sustainability, digital technology and design.

Polestar has a factory in Chengdu, China. It calls it the “Polestar Production Centre.”

Inside the Polestar factory. Yes, factory.

But there’s something interesting about what they’re doing there: operating the plant on 100% renewable electricity. Some 65% of all of the electricity powering the factory comes from hydroelectric with the balance from solar, wind and other renewables.

What’s more, there is no industrial water discharge from the plant and they are establishing a circular approach to waste handling (including carbon fiber) so as to reduce landfill demands.

The factory, designed by Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta, has earned Gold status in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, the only automobile plant in China to do so.

Said Fredrika Klarén, Head of Sustainability at Polestar, “For Polestar, sustainability is not just about the electric powertrain. It impacts everything we do. We want to promote sustainable manufacturing in China. This objective entails a relentless pursuit of circular and climate-neutral solutions, and also being a responsible employer and presence in the area.”–gsv

SEAT 600: One Cute Car

The fact that SEAT celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2020 was probably not all that notable for people who (a) don’t live or work in Barcelona or (b) aren’t automotive historians.

That said, the company was able to show off some of the vehicles that the company has launched (it says 75 over this period), including the SEAT 600, which was introduced in 1957.

(Image: SEAT)

And it is clearly one of the cutest cars you’re ever going to see.

According to SEAT, when the SEAT 600 was introduced, it was “the start of motorization in Spain. Back then, a motorcycle sidecar was considered a family vehicle.”

Which probably explains why this diminutive city car was said to be sufficiently sizeable to take mom, dad, four kids and grandmother on a trip, including luggage.

While nowadays, thanks in large part to Elon Musk, when people are now putting down deposits of varying amounts to hold their place in line for the purchase of a vehicle, it turns out the SEAT 600 was ahead of the curve: before the car went into production there was a waiting list two years long.

Admittedly, production rates then weren’t exactly what they are now, because five years into production SEAT had produced 100,000. So that would be an average of 20,000 per year.

Not a huge number.

By the time of the final model, the 600 L, in 1973, the SEAT 600 went out of production. Total build over the years the SEAT 600 was produced: ~800,000 units.

Not many cars. But cute.