The Automotive Industry Today: From Handling the Pandemic to Autonomous Driving

Tomas Ziutelis, a Manufacturing Engineer at HELLA Lithuania, says that it usually takes about six years to develop an idea of new technology or an improvement and implement it in a motor vehicle. It’s a long and complex process, and the pandemic raised various challenges to the automotive industry – from a disruption in Chinese parts exports to large-scale manufacturing interruptions across Europe. 

It seems that now, everything is normalizing, so how’s the life of the automotive industry going on today, and what is the future of the automotive industry? Tomas agreed to answer our questions and dive deeper into the current situation of the face-paced automotive sector as well as its subtleties. 

HELLA Lithuania was established five years ago and is part of the global HELLA company. Simply put, our company manufactures various components for cars. The company itself is divided into two fields: 

  • HELLA Lighting, which produces lighting solutions for vehicles;
  • HELLA Electronics, which manufactures various electronic components;

Lithuanian department belongs to HELLA Electronics; we produce electronic components for cars. Our products are widely used by the biggest car manufacturers worldwide. 

As a Manufacturing Engineer, I’ve already been working for almost three years, and my responsibilities include ensuring smooth launches of industrialization projects in series production, implementation changes, and upgrades. The automotive industry is face-paced, and there are a lot of changes constantly. We always have something interesting to do, and we must improve ourselves, stay hungry for knowledge, and make well-thought-out decisions.

Implementing something in cars takes a lot of time because the process consists of various complex steps. For example, when a car manufacturer has an idea for something new, they research whether the market needs it, the possible outcomes of the new technology, etc. After a couple of years, when proper research is done, they come to their manufacturers and suppliers (like HELLA) and tell them precisely what they need – how the new technology is supposed to function. It takes around 2-3 years to develop a new component because, according to our client’s requirements, we build the whole design, think about every detail of an element, and, of course, test it. After our tests, car manufacturers do their own tests, and only then, if everything is alright, we can start series production. Of course, the implementation time depends on the requirements and whether it’s a completely new component or an improvement of an older version. 

In the automotive industry, one of the most important things is safety. This is the reason why the testing takes most of the time. There are various tests depending on the product. It’s worth mentioning that the product is tested under difficult conditions, which probably won’t even exist in a real car. For example, we’re testing products at a much higher temperature and load than you can encounter in the regular vehicle. Moreover, it’s not enough to perform this kind of test several times. In such conditions, you must test the component many times; sometimes, you must do even millions of cycles, and each part must perform its function fully. This testing alone can take from six months to a year.

Of course, it happens that after testing, the product didn’t perform well. Then we go back to the start and evaluate what materials/components are used. We do corrections and test it out again until it works as expected. It helps that the latest calculation/design methodologies allow you to better assess whether the product will work from the beginning. 

A simple car has about 30 thousand components (if we count all the tiniest details), and there’s a manufacturer and supplier for each piece. The pandemic happened out of nowhere, and no one planned it. In the automotive industry, the supply chain is planned about two years ahead, and imagine when suddenly everything shuts down because people are locked in their homes. 

When a lockdown happened, and people started to spend more time at home, the trade of household appliances increased. Many home appliance components are also used for cars, so naturally, the focus was shifted to manufacturing home appliances because of higher demand. Car sales were expected to decrease because people didn’t need to go anywhere. And, of course, because of the pandemic, a lot of factories were simply closed. For example, there are various factories in China, but we all know that the lockdown there was very strict. 

And, of course, the thing that the automotive industry experts didn’t expect happened – after the first pandemic stage, people thought that they’d need cars eventually. The economy was also up then, so car demand didn’t decrease. The problem was that electronic components were used elsewhere, or their production was disrupted. Suppose suppliers have some of the components. The car still consists of many elements; even if one is missing, it can’t go out of production. Only now, after a certain period of time, everything is getting back on track, normalizing.

It’s not a secret that car manufacturers are moving to the electric vehicles market. The technologies related to electric cars are being developed a lot nowadays. What’s also developing very rapidly is all kinds of additional tools for the driver, such as distance sensors, cameras, and lane-keeping technologies. And all these technologies are evolving to allow you to hand over driving to the car itself, making the driver’s work easier. For example, we produce distance sensors, a product that goes into every new vehicle and continues to expand, because we see that there’s very high demand. Every car manufacturer thinks about its customer and safety.

It’s difficult to predict the future of electric cars; many experts thought they wouldn’t become the future of vehicles until Tesla came along and showed that it’s possible to produce quality electric cars. Because of that, the big car manufacturers are trying to catch up. The most significant limitation is electric car batteries, and of course, the entire infrastructure has been adapted to internal combustion engines for many years. 

Autonomous driving has improved a lot. There are five autonomous driving levels; now, we are at the third level, which means that the car driver can divert his attention from driving for a short period of time. Regarding self-driving cars, the infrastructure is probably the most significant limitation because there should be, for example, neatly drawn lines and quality road signs everywhere. 

Today’s technologies would allow the car to move independently, but the decision still has to be made by the driver. And in the future, artificial intelligence should make decisions, which is also a limiting factor. The information is received from all sensors and transmitted perfectly, but to process data/make a decision to turn, brake, etc. – it’s supposed to be artificial intelligence work. To this day, only a few car manufacturers have this technology. Tesla is the leader here; we have seen, probably, various videos on the Internet. But a lot still needs to be done; I think there should also be communication between cars, communication with road signs, and information about traffic conditions should be provided to the vehicle, etc.

Here in Lithuania, we have youthful enthusiasm and a desire to learn more and improve. We may not have much experience, especially in the automotive industry, but we have our foreign partners who provide us with valuable insights. 

If you work for twenty years doing the same thing, you often face similar problems. Suppose you once managed to solve an issue. You’ll probably solve other similar problems the same way. However, everything changes very fast in the automotive industry; maybe a year ago, the solution to that problem was the best, but it changed very quickly. Lithuanians don’t have a lot of experience but have a solid general background in technology from universities or other studies. Our foreign partners coordinate and direct us – for example, they tell us what’s already done and didn’t work. You can achieve great results when you look at a problem with a fresh mind and with clear guidelines from partners. To sum up my thoughts, I think we have a desire and passion for learning and improving, which leads us forward.