(Still) Made in Michigan: Research universities are powering the new automotive industry
The last 100 years witnessed the birth of the automotive industry and Detroit as the "Motor City." The next 100 years will require constant innovation to remain competitive in what has become a global game. Michigan's research universities are critical to help the industry re-make, re-imagine and re-fuel the next generation of cars and retain Michigan’s leadership position in the industry.
A new independent study, conducted by Anderson Economic Group of Lansing and Chicago for the University Research Corridor's annual technology sector study, outlines the contributions of Michigan State University, Wayne State University and the University of Michigan to auto technology. While the industry is not without its competitive pressures and challenges, these schools are tremendous assets that enable the success of the automotive sector in Michigan and across the country.
"The URC universities fulfill two important roles within the auto industry," said Jeff Mason, executive director of the URC. "The first is that they are an important resource for basic and applied research for the auto industry as it faces challenges requiring innovation. Secondly, the URC acts as a pipeline for the highly educated talent that the industry critically needs. It is this talent pipeline coupled with cutting-edge innovation happening at our top research institutions that is really helping to move our state's economy and the industry forward."
The auto industry of the 2010s is a far cry from the auto industry of the 1990s -- even the '00s. Consumers demand better performance at a lower price. Standards for carbon emissions, safety, fuel efficiency, and in-car entertainment keep climbing. And technological advances in everything from electric vehicles to digital syncing have changed the landscape of car development for good. To respond to these challenges, stay a step ahead of new challenges, and meet the market’s demands, the auto industry must constantly innovate.
Michigan's research universities are integral to every step of that innovation process, from basic research to product development and prototyping to mass production. In 2010 alone, the URC-affiliated institutions spent $60 million of its annual R&D spending on auto-related projects.
Over the past five years that adds up to about $300 million, on over 1400 auto-related projects.
"In order to respond to industry challenges, automakers have continually innovated to improve their products and operations," said Patrick Anderson, CEO of AEG. "Michigan has been home to much of this innovation due to the clustering of auto manufacturers and their suppliers in the state. These top institutions have created and sustained a pool of talent that has attracted both domestic and international companies to locate their research centers here."
Research universities support the auto industry in two ways. They perform basic research -- testing of a new construction material, for instance -- that raises the level of understanding and knowledge industry-wide. They also collaborate with automotive companies and government sponsors to solve problems on specific projects. In the past five years, private industry funded 28% of all auto research at URC institutions, which is nine times the average share of industry funding for all URC R&D. University research is crucial, the numbers indicate, to automotive industry innovation in the region.
As just a few examples:
At the University of Michigan and Wayne State University, research is being conducted that could make "talking" cars a reality. A large-scale safety pilot
led by U-M's Transportation Research Institute is underway in Ann Arbor, funded by a $22 million contract from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The program, which was the largest of its kind when it launched in November, is studying how vehicles might communicate with each other and with infrastructure to reduce the likelihood of a crash and ease traffic congestion. And at Wayne State, researchers working on a $900,000 grant from the National Science Foundation are experimenting with a concept called "platoon control"
that will enable cars to communicate with one another across a wireless network -- and ultimately drive themselves.
And how could a common weed contribute to the future of Michigan's economy? Researchers at Michigan State University are studying how pennycress might be used as a biofuel feedstock. The plant is its ability to soak up heavy metals in the soil, which could make it useful in brownfield redevelopment while providing a cheaper source for fuel.
Building the talent pipeline
Ultimately, the most important contribution Michigan's research universities are making to the auto industry may be the pool of talented people that graduate from them every year ready to join the global automotive workforce -- and meet the challenges of an increasingly high-tech industry.
Each year, URC produces more than 3,600 "auto-ready" graduates -- those with degrees in engineering, computer sciences, physical sciences and math. In the past five years (2006 - 2010) URC institutions granted 12,000 undergraduate and 7,000 graduate auto-ready degrees.
Most auto-ready degree programs are broad, but that can be a good thing: students educated at URC institutions learn to think critically, solve problems, and engage across disciplines, which makes them valuable employees no matter the sector.
To that end, URC institutions offer auto industry-centered programs: At the University of Michigan, four masters of engineering programs are available for students who want to focus their engineering careers in the automotive industry, and at U-M’s International Center of Automotive Medicine, students learn to prevent injuries and improve outcomes of automotive accidents. Wayne State offers an Electric-Drive Vehicle Engineering Program, a multidisciplinary masters degree for which students create a simulated electric-drive vehicle as a Capstone. And graduate students at Michigan State University focus on automotive industry challenges are part of their coursework.
According to the study, some 13,000 alumni of URC institutions work at Ford, Chrysler, and GM alone, to say nothing of the dozens of other companies supplying the industry with parts, services and solutions around the world.
Talent can make or break a region, and Michigan's historically strong engineering and manufacturing talent pool makes the state highly competitive for retaining automotive businesses and attracting new business to the region.
"Universities are critical to Ford and the rest of the auto industry as they provide an additional talent pipeline and aid us in early stage research and development," said Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford Motor Company and Chairman of the New Michigan Initiative of Business Leaders for Michigan. "The partnering of universities and companies provides students with real-world problems to research and solve, while allowing companies to leverage external expertise in new technical areas."
With support from the University Research Corridor, the automotive industry will continue to be a cornerstone of Michigan's economy, a proud part of its past, and a way forward for the future.