As I write this month's column, I'm on a train speeding my way north from Frankfurt, Germany to Cologne to visit my relatives. However, my reasons for coming to Germany are more business-related than familial. I am here for a major announcement from Germany-based brake manufacturer Ate, an announcement that will be reported fully in the October issue.
Anyone who has ever been to Germany (or driven a BMW or Mercedes-Benz) knows the Germans are, of course, noted for their engineering prowess, a fact that was underscored by a visit to a test track in Frankfurt. There, we saw the real-world use of some rather high-tech automotive accident-avoidance and braking systems. We even demo'd a laser-guided system that automatically parallel parks a car, without the driver having to ever touch the steering wheel! These and other new OE systems are super high-tech and will become common options or standard equipment on many models.
At around the same time I was heading out to Germany, another colleague attended a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle demo in the U.S. Of course, there are issues that need to be worked out with respect to hydrogen fuel cells, but eventually fuel cells (or something like it) will become a reality for the driving public, and by extension, the aftermarket.
All of this comes at a time when gas prices are at an all-time high, bringing these alternative systems closer to reality, either through government mandate or consumer demand. Take note of all the Toyota Priuses and Honda Insights you see on the road. They're out there. I don't know of a single aftermarket repair facility that is able to service and repair hybrids, yet they are out there on the roads. How many of your customers are prepared to service them? Do you have the inventory of parts to supply them? And even more broadly, is the aftermarket ready to service these systems today and as they evolve in the future? Will we allow the OEs to "high tech" the aftermarket out of existence? Will we be able to competently service and repair these systems or will the consumer be forced to go to the dealer, and use dealer-only parts because the aftermarket couldn't react to the changing dynamics of the industry. I hope not.
I have always had justifiably high expectations for the aftermarket, an industry that has traditionally been able to service and repair just about whatever the OEs throw at it. But we're a reactive industry, one that often has no control over the technologies that are equipped on vehicles. The aftermarket has done an amazing job at filling the service and parts voids opened up with each new technology. There is a nearly never-ending list of "new" systems that forced the aftermarket to react. Just in the last ten years we've seen the introduction of OBD I, OBD II, the switch from R-12 to R-134a and the introduction of distributorless ignition systems. But what's been happening lately is a fundamental change in the way vehicles are designed. We'd better be positioning our industry to make that change, now and in the future.
Can the aftermarket overcome whatever new technologies OE engineers throw at us? If history is any indicator, we should have no problem.