The Center for Automotive Research (CAR) conducts unbiased, independent research and analysis related to the critical issues confronting the automotive industry. The work is increasingly important, especially as technology and transportation intersect.
One of CAR’s greatest strengths is its ability to bring the industry – including competing interests – together by working with industry stakeholders such as manufacturers, suppliers, industry and labor organizations, government organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), educational institutions, policymakers, and consumers.
“This organization was established – and continues to focus on the future of the industry but also the ability as a not-for-profit to bring together organizations to work to resolve challenges,” said Brett Smith, co-director of CAR’s management briefing seminars and assistant director of its manufacturing, engineering, and technology group.
“We look for what’s best for the industry, what’s best for the consumer; our charge is to understand how we can best move the industry forward,” he said. “Whether it’s in material selection, powertrain selection or other choices, we try to remain unbiased and yet provide strategic direction for the industry.”
CAR originated at the University of Michigan under founder Dave Cole whose intention was to develop a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary approach to research that would improve industry competitiveness. The organization left the university 2000, and then and spun off into an independent organization in 2003. CAR is supported through direct research contract funding, an affiliates program, and running the CAR Management Briefing Seminars (MBS), as well as other industry events.
CAR MBS highlights technology and innovations, opportunities, challenges, and strategies as technology advances and transforms transportation. CAR endeavors to understand where the industry is, where it is going, and how best to proceed.
“It helps to work together. There are certain things we can solve better together. That’s where CAR has played its role, crossing the boundaries in terms of skillsets, crossing the boundaries with competitors, crossing the boundaries even in different parts of the industry,” said Smith.
There are three branches at CAR: manufacturing, engineering, and technology (MET); industry, labor, and economics (ILE); and transportation systems analysis (TSA).
“We give our clients a comprehensive view of what they need to know, rather than just a technical view of where certain technologies are going or what they should be doing. We give them a broader view including regulatory issues, labor issues, et cetera. that could affect their decisions,” explained Abhay (Abe) Vadhavkar, director of MET.
For a small organization, CAR has found a way to have a substantial impact on the competitiveness and progression of the automotive industry. CAR’s team of only thirty people are subject matter experts in their fields and use their various skill sets to solve problems and continue to ask the important questions that need to be asked.
“We are finding, not only from our affiliates but also from the experts that we talk to, we are very connected with them. It allows us to be the focal point of knowledge that would help direct a strategy,” said Vadhavkar.
By keeping itself abreast of industry trends, it seeks to understand innovations that threaten the status quo. Innovative mobility services are changing how the industry operates, and this has become a large part of the work at CAR. Innovative mobility services stand to reduce automakers’ profitability as their share in the market is diminished by changes to the vehicle ownership model.
As demand for innovative mobility services such as car sharing and ridesharing increases, a drop in vehicle ownership can result, though it is expected to only cause a small impact on vehicle sales in the short-to-medium term. “Today, the annual volume per model is changing, but how rapidly it will change is something that we are studying, and something that everybody is very much interested in so that they can either keep up with the competition or they can be prepared to support their customers with the right kinds of technologies,” Vadhavkar explained.
Strategic partnerships have been formed, and investments have been made in technology and mobility companies to ensure competitiveness moving forward, regardless of which business models predominate in the future. Established companies are joining forces with the start-ups whose innovation is changing the landscape. General Motors has agreements with Uber and Lyft; Ford and Lyft work together; and Toyota has investments in Uber, Getaround, and Grab.
A connected and automated vehicle working group is coordinated by CAR on behalf of the Michigan Department of Transportation to promote the state as a leader in connected and automated vehicle research, deployment, and operations, enhancing safety, and mobility.
CAR has a number of advocacy groups that assist varying aspects of the automotive industry. CAR’s Technology Advisory Council is the voice of the industry and delivers insight from a manufacturer’s perspective. It represents engineering professionals, manufacturers, and suppliers and covers issues pertaining to fuel economy, greenhouse gasses, manufacturing, lightweighting, and advanced powertrain technologies.
The Coalition for Automotive Lightweighting Materials (CALM) is an effort of more than forty leading industry stakeholders that collaborate to support the cost-effective integration of mixed materials to reduce vehicle mass.
The Advanced Powertrain Thought Leadership Roundtable Program helps to keep powertrain suppliers up to date with the ever-changing regulatory environment. This is done via discussions related to topics such as fuel economy, alternative fuels, emissions regulations, and innovative technologies.
“We look at what is going to happen with durability as we go more and more into sharing of vehicles,” Vadhavkar noted. “So as we do more sharing, these vehicles are no longer sitting in parking lots anymore. They’re moving all the time like taxi cabs, so how does that change the whole picture for durability? Do we now have to design vehicles that are ten times more durable, or do we have wearable parts that are easily replaceable so they can be snapped in, and you are good to go as new as a new vehicle? So, those are some of the underlying issues that are going to get affected by the major disruptors.”
CAR also examines battery technology and advancements in that area, specifically those related to battery range, the ability to recharge, and power storage capabilities. There is also research dedicated to the viability of fully-electric vehicles versus hybrid models.
“We do not develop standards, but we can certainly direct the flow of where the technology should be going, whether it should be replaceable batteries or fast charge batteries, or as the future brings on solid-state batteries which have a much higher power density for size,” explained Vadhavkar who noted that batteries can weigh up to 2,000 pounds.
Much effort is being dedicated to improving battery performance, while also ensuring the infrastructure necessary to support electric vehicles is present. This means working with power companies to develop infrastructure.
“Utility companies are trying to become more like oil companies where they are trying to get in the game, to figure out if they can play a part in having electric recharge stations just like we have gas stations today. And that’s another area CAR can play a positive role in trying to guide these companies in a pre-competitive environment,” Vadhavkar said.
This raises another issue related to sustainability; how sustainable are battery-powered electric vehicles? “If you strictly look at the vehicles, sure, they’re zero emissions when they’re electric, but does that mean they are really zero emissions depending on how the electricity is generated? It may not be zero emissions,” Vadhavkar noted.
“If you have millions of cars with batteries that need to be replaced, what do you do with the used batteries that are no longer the size of what’s in your camera or cell phone? They are humongous batteries.” There is also the issue of lithium mining and the dangers of manufacturing lithium batteries.
The MET team currently has several projects on the go. One of the projects, of which Vadhavkar is a part, is a study related to vertical integration in a plant for a foreign company interested in manufacturing vehicles in the U.S. Through studies like this, CAR has created a body of knowledge from which it can provide clients with information to understand and predict trends better, and make better decisions.
The MET team is also working with the tool and die sector to communicate the benefits of choosing domestic versus international suppliers. Low costs do not necessarily translate into savings as tools may not live up to quality and durability standards, which could then lengthen project lead times and be costly in the long run.
The goal is always to remain ahead of industry trends, innovations, and disruptions to ensure that the automotive industry remains competitive and that consumer needs and environmental regulations are being met, but it is not an easy task. CAR must compete to remain a trusted and unbiased force that bridges industries, skillsets, and sectors.
“There are a lot of other organizations, some profit, some not-for-profit, who compete for the same dollars. Whether it’s automakers or Tier One suppliers, they only have a limited amount of funds to do these studies and this research for them, so we’re competing for the same dollars as other organizations,” noted Vadhavkar.
“We’re not just a technical organization. We have a significant amount of wheelbase when it comes to regulatory issues, policy issues, labor issues, and when more people hear that and recognize that, we will continue to grow.”
Unbiased and comprehensive research has been CAR’s claim to fame. This prestigious research organization is dedicated to advancing the automotive industry and its many stakeholders.