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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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
Regular hybrids, like today’s Toyota Prius, use an electric motor and a small internal combustion engine. Plug-in hybrids use that technology, too, but with a big battery and big electric motor, plus – surprise! – a plug. They also recharge their batteries by plugging into the regular electric grid.
Waters says the IDEA will get around 100 miles of city driving for every gallon of gas. It’s van-size because the company figures it could win over bean counters at companies pressed by high fuel costs, such as FedEx, UPS, and the US Postal Service.
But if the company is to turn out 50,000 of these swoopy things a year by 2012, as it plans, it needs cash – and today investment dollars are hard to come by. So Bright has turned to the federal government. The firm has applied for $35 million in grants from the stimulus bill, as well as a $450 million loan from a Department of Energy green technology program.
Bright is hardly the only US firm with an idea like IDEA. At least a half-dozen start-up companies, with names like Aptera and Visionary Vehicles, are vying for funding to build the next-generation automobile.