TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Mike Downey’s team at Fiat Chrysler shaved 250 pounds from the 2016 Chrysler Town & Country to create the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica. But the challenge wasn’t what to cut, but how to replace a part with something that works better.
“The challenge is putting the right material in the right place,” said Downey, the vehicle line executive for the Pacifica and FCA’s large cars. “There was no single material that is right for every application.”
Speaking at the Center for Automotive Research’s Management Briefing Seminars here, Downey said material selection is vitally important in developing a vehicle, but it’s also one of the last decisions that are made.
Downey said designers start any vehicle project by outlining a series of requirements that the vehicle must meet, both in terms of what customers want as well as requirements to improve fuel efficiency and safety.
He said, as a minivan, the Chrysler Pacifica, produced at FCA's Windsor Assembly Plant, presents its own set of challenges, such as the minivan’s optional tri-pane roof and its Stow ‘n Go rear seats.
The Tri-pane sunroof, “looks great if you’re a customer, but if you’re an engineer, it blows a big hole in your roof,” that makes it harder to maintain structural integrity, Downey said.
Downey said automakers can’t afford to stand still when it comes to choosing advanced materials for their vehicles. “If you stand still today, you will get swiftly surpassed,” he warned.
Designing for improved safety performance meant using different grades of steel in different places to enhance structural integrity and keep passengers safe. For example, although there are 12 different grades of steel used on the Pacifica, the hardest, most rigid steel was used to surround the two front doors to protect the driver and front seat passenger.
FCA used only mild steel on the Pacifica’s roof. Downey was asked whether an aluminum roof might be in the Pacifica’s future, to further reduce weight. As he sat next to a fellow engineer from General Motors, Downey’s response drew a laugh.
“As soon as they share their patent on joining aluminum to metal,” Downey said, “I think we’ll do that.”