With gas prices currently around $4.29 per gallon and expected to continue rising, there is no doubt we need answers from the auto industry on what the vehicles of tomorrow will look like. Vehicles such as the Volt and the Nissan Leaf bring us closer, and even non-electric vehicles such as the new Ford Focus and Fiesta are key industry leaders in helping to shift America’s mind set. Good bye big SUVs, hello small compact fuel efficient vehicles.

So, will we all be driving around in 100 percent electric vehicles in the next few years? Not likely according to a recently released Booz & Co. survey. The study, which surveyed more than 200 OEM and supplier executives, identified that there is no dominant solution in terms of creating the next powertrain technology. Hybrid, diesel, plug in hybrids, battery electric and fuel cell technology are all players at this point up through 2020.

The good news is we are seeing suppliers being innovative and looking at every option from making vehicles more lightweight through materials to new energy efficient engines such as Achates Power,(client) a company that has developed a radically improved internal combustion engine – a patented 2-stroke, opposed-piston, compression-ignition engine.

But innovation comes at a price and suppliers have to be able to justify the cost. Achates Power CEO David Johnson addresses this within a Booz & Co. article about the survey, “Is the U.S. Auto Industry Ready for Economic Recovery,” stating:

“A product’s price is directly proportional to the value it creates,” says David Johnson, CEO of Achates Power Inc., which is developing an energy-efficient engine. “Any time that you aren’t delivering a unique technology or unique features that will create market demand or fill a real need in the market, your product becomes commoditized — and the next thing you are doing is price and quality competition. That’s not a long-term winning formula.”

Experts Coming Together to Foster Innovation

A few weeks ago I attended 2011 SAE World Congress at Cobo Center in Detroit. One clear goal for this conference was identifying ways the auto industry can create vehicles that are more environmentally friendly, fuel efficient and are more cost effective for OEMs and consumers.  One session, “Examples of Green innovation and Sustainable Practices in the Automotive Sector,” included speakers from PPG Chemfil, Faurecia North America (client), Ford Motor Company, Ontario BioAuto Council and Bayer MaterialScience LLC.  Each company demonstrated how they were working to develop new products for the auto industry using natural, renewable or recycled materials. The conversation in the room was dynamic as each expert discussed different innovations for OEMs to consider as they work to build the vehicles of tomorrow.  This type of event that fosters collaboration and innovation is exactly what is needed to move the industry forward.

Creative ideas are the first stepping stone, but how do we bring these ideas to life to truly make an impact on the industry? This week at the Center for Automotive Design Driving Change conference, we hope to see the same level of innovation and more importantly, identifying how these great ideas can become reality.  During the conference, Tony Norton from Altair Engineering (client) will demonstrate how simulation and optimization software can help suppliers and OEMs rethink the design process and ultimately find more creative ways to address some of the key issues, such as “lightweighting” either through the use of new materials or through changing the vehicle architecture. 

It is through these types of collaborative studies and events that the auto industry will be able to discover what the next generation of vehicles will be. The OEMs cannot work in silos and neither can suppliers. I look forward to seeing the future developments within the auto industry.

— Deana Goodrich is a senior account executive at Airfoil Public Relations, a high-tech PR agency with offices in Detroit and Silicon Valley.