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C.A.R. - Connected in Traverse City - Management Briefing Seminars - Day 1

Looking At The Future of The Auto Industry


By Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

The Center for Automotive Research, an Ann Arbor-based automotive think tank and research entity, has hosted the Management Briefing Seminars here in Traverse City along Michigan’s “Gold Coast” for as long as any of us can remember. It’s an opportunity to catch up on the trends, challenges and opportunities in the automotive business. In my 10 years or so covering this conference I’ve seen some mighty intense changes in the industry.

Previous years’ themes centered around managing dramatic change, handling crises, downsizing businesses and lots of tough topics. With the auto industry on the mend – not out of the woods, to be sure, but coming back substantially – we’re looking at a more upbeat theme.

This year’s conference theme is “Connect.”

Have you ever thought that you could spend full time managing your technology. I could do that just with my computer and cell phone, let alone my automobile. Though the opportunities to connect you with your car, connect your car with the road, and all three with the outside world boggles the mind.

One question asked today: “are connected vehicles already here?”

The resounding answer: “By all means.” More than we might think.

For example, think about GM’s popular and successful OnStar system that started out as an automatic crash notification system in 1996 that would get you emergency services in the event of a crash even if you were unconscious. GPS, cell phone towers and some simple technology make it all happen. Lincoln launched a similar, if considerably less known, system about the same time called RESCU, an acronym for what I don’t know.

These systems are rapidly evolving into endless varieties of applications just like your smart phone. From vehicle diagnostics to infotainment; from monitoring your teenaged driver to finding your stolen car; from finding a parking place to finding an Italian restaurant; you name it you can do it, or soon will be able to do it, through your car’s connectivity.

My question – as a technologically challenged older guy – is, will we be spending an inordinate amount of time managing our technology? I already feel that I can’t keep up with what I have. And, so much of what is coming are answers to questions I certainly never asked. Someone must have asked those questions, though, and the excitement with which people in the field suggests that it is a big deal.

Another big question is about how to protect your information – the information about you and your vehicle that will be floating around out there in the cloud and on so many servers. Security was not as big an issue in the beginning but sure is today, and will be more important in years to come.

Connecting your car to the infrastructure is just beginning to revolutionize urban driving. For example, we already have the ability to get real-time congestion information right on our car’s navigation screen. We’ve had a variety of vehicles lately with this feature and it has saved us from getting stuck in traffic jams. Some systems are more accurate and timely than others but they’ll do nothing but get better and better, as well as cheaper and cheaper, making them more and more common.

Just in the first few hours at the conference we heard lots of talk about the government’s plan to raise corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards dramatically over the next few years and decades. Right now we’re looking at the likelihood of a 54.5 mpg requirement for 2025. That would just about double the current standard. Certainly, the technology exists to do that. But would it be practical? Will that mean they’ll be building cars so much smaller, underpowered and expensive that no one would buy them?

Our colleague Gary Witzenburg, was part of the ill-fated GM EV1 electric car of the 1990s that was a response to the California requirements that manufacturers build a certain percentage of zero-emissions vehicles. He was fond of saying, “the government can require us to build those cars, but they can’t require the public to buy them.” So, is there a risk that we’ll look like Cuba someday with old cars being endlessly kept in service?

And, what about diesels? We’ve heard no talk here yet of the technology that could vastly improve fuel economy, particularly in large cars, without sacrificing anything. They’ll be just a bit pricier but not as much as hybrids and electrics. More on that tomorrow.

Tomorrow we’ll sit in on the engineers’ sessions talking about advanced powertrains. Like most other areas of automotive technology we’ve seen truly amazing advances in drivetrains with much more is to come. Tune in tomorrow for more on that topic.

Another big topic we’ll be talking about later this week is the upcoming labor negotiations. UAW boss, Bob King, will be here to talk about that subject and the UAW’s thrust to organize the Japanese and German transplant factories in the US.

Stay tuned.


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© Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved.