What the future of the auto industry will look like
Surging demand for cars in rapidly growing nations will mean a robust car industry in 20 years. The US will have a piece of it – though smaller than today – and the models it turns out will be much greener as the iconic industry reinvents itself.
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“The global auto industry is still developing,” says Bruce Belzowski, an associate director at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute. “In five to 10 years, there could be strong competition on a global scale.”Skip to next paragraph
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ANDERSON IS ONE of those Midwestern towns where modern automobile technology was born. Flint, Mich., had its engine and body shops, and Detroit its production lines, but Anderson provided cars with the beat of their electronic heart.
By 1900, Anderson was home to 11 automakers and two brothers, Perry and Frank Remy, whose Remy Electric would soon become the nation’s leading producer of magnetos and dynamos needed to start cars in the nation’s growing auto fleet.
Through the decades, legions of electrical engineers worked at Remy and at other nearby manufacturers to develop power for lights, radios, seat warmers, keyless remote entry fobs, and computer-controlled engine and ventilation systems. Anderson and the rest of central Indiana was the “Silicon Valley” of vehicles, says William Wylam, a former director at Delco Remy, Remy’s successor firm.
That’s “was,” as in, “isn’t any longer.” Today Anderson, a city of 60,000 northeast of Indianapolis, mixes run-down bungalows and shuttered storefronts against the backdrop of an empty 1960s-era headlight factory. “Everything here in Anderson today is gone – it’s all gone and most of the [factory] buildings are torn down,” says Mr. Wylam.
Well, maybe not everything. A little company out by the state highway, Wylam adds, is mining the area’s biggest remaining resource – its rich vein of human talent.
That firm is Bright Automotive. A number of its key people used to work at GM’s Indianapolis research center, which developed the EV1, the first modern production electric vehicle from a major automaker. Introduced in 1996, the EV1 was available in California and Arizona, via lease. GM discontinued it in 1999, citing program expense. It recalled the cars. Most of them were crushed. But the EV1 engineers’ dreams weren’t crushed with them.
“These are highly qualified, highly motivated people,” says Wylam. “I wouldn’t want to get in their way.”
The IDEA is Bright’s main project. Working from a gleaming office park on the edge of Anderson, the Bright team has put together a prototype of the vehicle, which combines plug-in hybrid technology with extensive use of aluminum, carbon fiber, and other weight-reduction techniques.