Car Development Episode II – Attack of The Clones

As I'm sure that most of you know, in order to cut down production costs and for a number of other related reasons, modern car development is made using common platforms, also known as architectures.
With the recent news that both Mercedes-Benz and BMW will simplify their future platforms, to the point of the Swabians switching to four and the Bavarians to use no more than two architectures for their entire model lineup, it became rather apparent that we are heading into a never-before-seen car manufacturing future.

It's a signal that the raison d'être of most car manufacturers in the upcoming decades will change dramatically, no matter if we're talking about providers of appliances on wheels (I'm mainly looking at you, Toyota) or car makers which still manage to stir your soul.

For some of you who weren't yet aware of how many models and platforms the two aforementioned premium car giants own right now, you should first prepare for a very short walkthrough.

Let's start with BMW, since at the moment they sell the most cars of all premium manufacturers out there and they have been in the number one spot since 2005.

Counting the Bavarian models just using the difference in body styles, BMW currently sells no less than 25 models, spread around five different architectures, and I'm not even looking at the MINI model range.

By 2020, the Munich car manufacturer wants to sell even more models, despite the fact that it will cut the number of architectures from five to only two: one for rear-wheel drive cars and the other for... gasp!... front-wheel drive cars - with the first step in that direction already being made by the 2-Series Active Tourer.

Mercedes-Benz, believe it or not, is also currently selling 25 different models, but with the major difference that they are using no less than 11 different architectures to build them upon.

Since substantially different platforms mean different production lines, which in turn mean gigantic R&D and production budgets, it is safe to say that Mercedes-Benz is currently not making the money it should be making by reducing the adjacent investments.

Good thing that Daimler themselves have decided to cut down the number of platforms from 11 to just four by 2020, therefore drastically reducing costs and also speeding up the development of new models.

The scale economies for Audi, for example, are already greater than at BMW and Mercedes-Benz, as the Ingolstadt manufacturer is part of the VW Group stable, where common platforms are as common as muck (somewhat accidental pun intended). Not to mention the fact that the MQB and MLB architectures we'll be the backbone of pretty much every car in the VAG Group in the upcoming years.

Getting back to the two aforementioned arch enemies, who are both battling for the number one spot when it comes to luxury car sales by 2020 – with Audi in between, poking sticks at each one – it should be noted that while pretty much everyone applauds their visionary cost-reduction measures, not that many are worried about the other half of the glass.

Sure, fewer architectures mean more common parts between models, which in turn means more money and faster times for car makers to come out with other models that keep our dreams of owning one going. I'm worried about something else though.

Purists, for example, might fear that more common parts mean that in the future, the Audi “same sausage, different lengths” virus might be caught by both Mercedes-Benz and BMW, but they would be wrong.

Why? Because the two BMW and the four Mercedes-Benz platforms will be as modular as a Rubik's cube and highly scalable, with different cars built on the same architecture having different lengths, widths and heights.

On the other hand, more common parts also means that if something goes wrong in a model, it pretty much means that all cars built using that part may be suffering the exact same predicament at one point in time or another.

The somewhat recent recall nightmares experienced by Toyota and General Motors might turn into colossal disasters if you think about it.

Just think about this completely ridiculous and most of all made up example: let's say that in the unfortunate case of an accident, one or a multitude of parts that a BMW supplier has developed for use in the upcoming Bavarian cars makes the vehicles catch fire and trap the occupants inside at the same time.

With just two architectures to choose from, those specific faulty parts would be used by about three quarters of the ever-expanding BMW lineup, prompting the Bavarians to recall a record-breaking number of cars, fact which in turn would cost a record-breaking amount of money.

If this “faulty supplier part” would happen about once a year it would pretty much mean chaos and a PR scandal that could possibly bury entire companies, but maybe I'm just the boy who cried wolf and a bit too paranoid at this hour.

What do you guys think of the entire “less common platforms” subject? Is car cloning the way of the future or is it a bad idea as large scale manufacturing goes?


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