How'd They Do That? Enthusiasts Aren't The Only Ones Interested in Finding Out
By: Mike Levine Posted: 01-28-08 00:41 PT
© 2008

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Enthusiasts and future buyers aren't the only ones who get excited waiting to find out what's changed in the newest trucks that debut at major industry events, like the North American International Auto Show. Competing manufacturers are just as anxious to find out too.

But unlike everyday Joes who are locked out of auto shows during media and industry preview days, engineering and product planning staff from almost every manufacturer make their rounds visiting vehicle display stands immediately after the unveilings.

It's the closest the engineers and product planners will get to the trucks until they go on sale six to twelve months later - when they can be purchased, torn down, and reverse-engineered at vehicle assessment and benchmark centers - so the most is made from the opportunity.

Generally, it's easy to tell the two staff apart.

Engineers tend to travel in small teams of two or three. They carry laptop computers, notepads, rulers, and digital cameras and dress comfortably. They'll scurry around a vehicle examining it from every angle, often getting on their hands and knees or backs to crawl underneath, so they can see major design changes with their own eyes. They measure individual parts and major dimensional specs, like bed height and box length. New technologies and equipment, like the 2009 Dodge Ram's RamBox side saddle storage and coil-over rear suspension, get special attention. Up to 15 minutes can be spent examining new parts and features, to see how they work and what they feel like.

In the photo at the top of the page, two Toyota engineers surveyed a 2009 Dodge Ram 1500 for almost 20-minutes while they recorded their observations. And swarms of engineers kept coming back to Ford's amazing 2009 F-150 cutaway (above) that clearly labeled and highlighted structural and component changes in the new pickup.

Product planners usually wear business suits and move in packs of two to ten people, often surrounding an alpha executive as they tour the floor. They tend to be louder and much more conversational than engineers. As they walk and stop, they freely engage in chit chat with the staff stationed at a truck's display stand. They'll ask questions about what kinds of changes were made, why, and what were the major challenges. They also congratulate competitors on notable revisions or things they think are worthy of recognition.

In the photo below, Ford truck and SUV marketing manager Mike Crowley (fourth from left) walked Volkswagen Chairman Ferdinand Piech (second from left) and Volkswagen of America CEO Stefan Jacoby (third from left) around display tables that highlighted and explained the 2009 F-150's interior changes and new powertrain components.

The VW entourage surrounding Messrs. Piech and Jacoby had a headcount of ten suits.

It's difficult to do with engineers, since they easily fade into the crowds during the auto shows, but with well-known executives, like Mr. Piech, it's easy to discern patterns as they move from showcase to showcase. If they look closely at one manufacturer's truck and quickly move on to another manufacturer's pickup, that can be an indication they've got something in the pipeline and they want to make sure it's going to hit where the newest trucks are landing or ahead of them.

This happened in 1999, when Mr. Piech toured GM's and Ford's stands closely and then Volkswagen brought its Advanced Activity Concept to Detroit the next year. The AAC didn't turn into a production hauler but there are rumors VW is on the pickup truck planning path again.

You'd think, with all the competitive intelligence that could be gathered during the auto show, the manufacturers would be more guarded with who has access to the display stands, but that's not the case. It's tolerated because sooner or later their engineering and product planning staff are going to be making the rounds too.

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