Auto Executive: “AI Will Be Used For More Than Just The Products”

With the wide readership that this forum provides, feedback on articles comes in many forms: explicit compliments, constructive criticisms and a wealth of social media comments (as well as hopefully a few “Likes”). Most follow-up conversations are digital and quick, and they rarely inject residual feelings of missing a critical chuck of the full story.But sometimes there’s a post-publication epiphany after a reader contacts me, and that leads to another interview.In May, I attempted to explain to those peripherally playing with chatbots that Artificial Intelligence (AI) not only far exceeds an online toy, but has reshaped automotive architectures, applications and suppliers. The base product is no longer an isolated, static, sheet metal transport, but an ever-evolving network of software and algorithms. What was missed in that initial article, though, were elements beyond the products themselves.“AI and digital tools will enable us to control and act on nuances in the end-to-end supply chain,” explains Daimler Truck North America’s General Manager, Joanna Cooper. She notes that the myriad of constraints in engineering, shipping, manufacturing, etc. across a vast network of suppliers and sub-suppliers is an incredibly complex and moving picture. “We will be able to stabilize plant operations such that only the trucks that can actually be produced are scheduled, and everything else remains in a holding pattern until these criteria are met.”

Obviously Daimler Truck is still heavily invested in using technology as part of product development (e.g., Torc Robotics is Daimler Truck’s wholly-owned subsidiary developing autonomous trucks, and their joint venture for zero-emission charging stations, Greenlane™, will assuredly use AI), but Cooper emphatically suggests AI will have widely used potential outside of system design. “We are in an industry and a time when change is happening quicker and quicker. AI will give us an opportunity to rethink how we’ve done things in the past and be more agile. It will stimulate a return to critical thinking. We’ve been in this place where everything was ‘download it and then regurgitate it.’ AI is going to force us as humans to revisit critical thinking and embrace new and varied ways to solve problems. These tools and technologies help us to think through things more logically and faster.”

In the midst of the myriad of ongoing examples ranging from targeted marketing to build-compatibility checks, the discussion inevitably led to resources and how to react in the midst of these step-function changes. “Within different environments including manufacturing operations, you have to consider a mix of foundational skilling relevant to the job and upskilling the team to use AI and other advanced technologies to interpret, act and build on the information,” states Cooper. “The extensive knowledge and critical thinking of our current staff is pivotal. So we have been leveraging both internal and external resources including partnering with local community colleges and universities. Here in Charlotte, we have UNC-Charlotte. They have senior design teams that do annual capstone projects, which provide both the students and our team an opportunity to learn and improve.”

“We are not hesitant on working with AI,” offers Cooper unapologetically. “There are certainly a lot of things to figure out including governance, metrics, etc., but we also understand that to be relevant for tomorrow we must embrace tomorrow’s technology. That’s what our customers need, and that helps us to provide the experience for which we’re known.”

Author’s Note

Back in 2021, another reader reached out regarding my article impugning female executives for not rallying behind female crash dummies, and I subsequently authored another such “addendum piece” highlighting how Volvo’s female-laden Safety Center cared about women long before the #MeToo movement. I cannot help but notice that there are two common threads between these post-readership articles.The first and most obvious: both are automotive manufacturers who are seeking to compete based upon a differentiated way of working. They have grasped that profits are realized by higher revenues with lower costs with both financial metrics fueled by greater efficiency.The second thread is much more subtle: a focus on unleashing the talent of their employees. Yes, the cynics amongst us will state those two themes are not independent: getting the most out of your employees maximizes corporate margins. However, the underlying tone of both interviews was “We see the value of specialists, and we value them seeing value here.”Hopefully as we continue to slog through an era of resignations combined with a dearth of talent, more corporations recognize the worth of experts.

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