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What is an Automotive Platform? A Crash Course

Martin Peter
By
2 min reading time

Any discussion about bringing a new vehicle on the market starts with defining the parameters of an automotive platform. This is the core element of every automotive project, yet there is often a degree of uncertainty about what this term means.

This article definitively answers the most important question in automotive development: What exactly is an automotive platform? The definition of an automotive platform may differ based on who you ask and, as a result, the term may be confusing for new entrants.

To clear up any vagueness or uncertainty that may exist, this article will present the most common definition of a platform, the key advantages it offers, and current trends within platform development.

TABLE OF CONTENTS
> General Definition of a Car Platform
> What are the Future Trends for Automotive Platforms?
> What's Next?

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GENERAL DEFINITION OF AN AUTOMOTIVE PLATFORM

At its most basic level, an automotive platform can be described as “the sum of all non-styling specific parts – functions, components, systems, and sub-assemblies – of a vehicle.” This means that an automotive platform is, in essence, the structural underpinnings of a vehicle.

In other words, the platform is a consolidated group of components and systems shared by a range of different models. The main components are the powertrain, the chassis, the underbody, the seat structure, the thermal system, and the high-voltage and low-voltage architecture.

The E/E architecture is an increasingly important aspect in automotive development due to the significant growth in the number of mechatronics features.

In addition to the components and systems that make up a platform, the other major factor influencing the platform layout is the segments in which the vehicles will be sold. This is primarily determined based on the vehicle’s overall size and weight as well as the price segment.

One of the biggest challenges for new platforms is achieving a degree of modularity across multiple segments and the vehicles planned for each segment. Many OEMs have adopted a modular system to use the platform in more than one segment.

Graphic about Platform and Top hatOpen Graphic

Platform vs. Top Hat

The top hat is the styling-driven portion of a vehicle. A top hat generally includes the upper bodywork, interior, and exterior of a vehicle – in a nutshell, everything “on top” of the platform.
For example, a sedan, an SUV, and a hatchback version could be based on the same platform, whereas the top hat sets them apart in terms of their styling. While this approach is obviously much more efficient than developing three entirely different vehicles, it is necessary to plan in different body styles from the start.

Common Parts

To keep costs low, it is necessary to maximize the portion of shared components. That means that the number of carry-over parts (common parts) should be as high as possible across multiple vehicles planned based on a single platform. In each vehicle unique parts will be utilized to meet styling and various other requirements, though the goal of a platform is to reduce unique parts to a minimum. For example, the seat structure and how it is connected to the body is the same across several models, while the cushioning and fabric of the seat could be unique for each model.

WHAT ARE THE FUTURE TRENDS FOR AUTOMOTIVE PLATFORMS?

Automotive platforms were originally used to maximize the return on investment. In the early days of automotive development, the concept of a platform started as a ladder frame chassis that could be used for different body styles on top of the shared technical underpinnings. Nowadays, the unibody system is the standard for passenger vehicles for reasons of weight reduction and increased rigidity, strength, and crash performance. The underbody must be designed to fulfill all platform requirements.

The biggest trend by far in automotive platform development right now is towards increased modularity for greater flexibility. The total number of distinct, newly developed automotive platforms on the market has decreased over the past few years. Conversely, the platforms on the market are far more adaptable. This is achieved using systems and E/E architectures that are modular in design to allow them to be implemented across different vehicle platforms without the need for re-scaling while having a minimal impact on the performance of parts. The trend is toward platforms that can be freely adapted in size and layout, with only geometrical factors to account for.

Should You Develop Your Own Platform?

A common approach for vehicle manufacturers is to use existing platform solutions as a starting point for new platform development. The benefits are clear to see: You save time, spread costs across several models, and pool resources. As soon as the technological hurdles become too big and too many compromises must be made in the modified platform, it is worthwhile to consider whether it might make more sense to develop a new platform to include all the new features.

New entrants may be strongly inclined to use a shared platform rather than developing one from scratch. As new players in the market, keeping costs low and time-to-market play a major role in their development and production process. Using a shared platform is a good way to achieve both goals more easily.

However, there are still good reasons for new entrants to design their own platform - for example the following:

  • Adjustments on an existing platform become too expensive, for example If the intended vehicle segments do not match.

  • Parts costs of the platform are too high, resulting in a too high price for the end customer.

  • Partnership with the platform owner is difficult, for example if there is no legal agreement on the use of the platform. In that case, a neutral partner like Magna can help as an intermediary.

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WHAT'S NEXT?

An automotive platform is the sum of all common components, systems, and functions across different vehicle models. Platforms are the “streamlined” half of a vehicle, while the top hat is the “styling-driven” portion. The exact properties of a platform are determined by the systems and functions they encompass, their structure (size/weight class), and their E/E architecture. Most importantly, the strategy of developing several vehicles based on a single platform can considerably reduce development costs, shared material costs, and increase product familiarity with shared functionalities. In the future, successful platforms will be even more flexible and will see widespread use across different automotive models and structures.

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Back to all Articles Martin Peter

Martin Peter is Vice President Engineering and Technology at Magna Steyr since April 2018. He joined Magna in 2001 and held several key positions in vehicle engineering, product development and program management – including international assignments in China, Germany, Malaysia and Poland. Martin Peter holds an engineer’s degree in mechanical engineering with business management.

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