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Technology Mapping and the Auto Industry

February 14, 2013

On February 14, 2013, McMaster’s new Automotive Policy Research Centre (APRC) held its first event, a luncheon and panel discussion entitled Technology Mapping & the Future of the Automotive Industry.

The panel included four distinguished speakers with a wealth of knowledge concerning the automotive industry, technology trends, and public policy.  It was an interactive session that enabled APRC industry and academic partners as well as representatives of Industry Canada, the Government of Ontario, the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, Arcelor-Mittal, Prism Economics, Electric Mobility Canada, and Automotive Partnership Canada to discuss with the panel what the future automobile might look like, and how Canada and Ontario might ensure that a healthy share of global automobile production remains here at home.

The session was chaired by Dr. Charlotte Yates, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Principal Investigator for the APRC.  Panelists included:

  • Dr. Ali Emadi, Director of the McMaster Institute for Automotive Research and Technology (MacAuto) and Canada Excellence Research Chair in Hybrid Powertrain
  • Dr. Saeid Habibi, Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at McMaster University
  • Dr. Joe McDermid, Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at McMaster University
  • Nick Markettos, Assistant Vice-President of Research Partnerships in the Office of Vice-President of Research and International Affairs at McMaster University

The desire to improve fuel efficiency and reduce CO2 emissions (GHG), as well as other environmental considerations and the forces of global competitiveness, are key factors in driving innovation and the development of new products in the automotive sector.  In this context the panelists were asked two questions:  What are the technology breakthroughs that might be widely adopted by industry in the coming decades?  And what are the public policies that Canada might want to implement if it is going to secure a greater share of the design and production of these new automotive products?

Dr. Emadi kicked off the discussion by identifying the need for environmental sustainability, vehicle cost, and vehicle performance as the drivers of innovation in the automotive sector. He pointed out just how inefficient most cars on the road are, and indicated that electrification can improve efficiency and reduce CO2 emissions.

Electrification of course means much more than a completely electric plug-in vehicle.  Electrification can be applied to both the system propelling the car and to the various non-propulsion systems in a car – like air conditioning, braking, moving seats etc.  Electrification has been a key trend in power steering systems for a while now, either complementing or replacing hydraulic systems.  And when it comes to propulsion systems, there are several types of vehicles including hybrid engines, plug-in hybrid engines, and fully electric engines.  So electrification does not mean the end of the internal combustion engine, but rather, more variety in the type of vehicles that we drive.

Dr. Habibi pointed out that internal combustion engines have become more efficient and can become more efficient still, but as efficiency is increased, so is complexity – and that can decrease reliability.  Electrification, he made clear, is an important way to improve the efficiency of the internal combustion engine, particularly as a complement to international combustion engines, which are least efficient when idling or warming-up.

Reducing vehicle weight is also important in improving efficiency.  Dr. McDermid told participants that a 10% reduction in vehicle weight can produce a 6% increase in efficiency – a good payback and well worth the effort.  Of course, improvements in materials is not a new focus for the automobile industry; virtually all the steel in a car today is produced differently than the steel found in cars that are ten years old.  Dr. McDermid told participants that at least in part because improvements in batteries and storing electric energy are still needed, improving efficiency through lighter materials is very important in making electrification work.

Nick Markettos ended the panel discussion by summarizing the key role that public policy has played in developing the auto industry in Canada. This discussion focused on how best to define and frame the goals of public policy related to the automotive industry. For example, should policy focus on investment and production levels, or on employment targets and incentives? Mr. Markettos also laid out several of the tools available to governments, such as tax credits and breaks, direct investment, shared research and development, and the promotion of a business-friendly environment.

Dr. Yates then chaired a vibrant and interesting discussion between participants and panelists. Participants were very engaged and raised a number of interesting points.  There was lengthy discussion about the changes necessary to facilitate electrification.   If the public is going to get comfortable with electrification, cultural and technological shifts are required.   Infrastructural development will also be required. Even if the current electrical grid can handle the increased demand from hybrid and electric cars, the infrastructure to charge these new cars has to be built.  Despite the challenges, most participants seemed to agree that electrification is coming.

Important in driving that shift towards electrification of course, are the new emission standards being adopted in North America.  Even if cultural shifts are slow to occur, and even if there are lags in infrastructure development, automakers must improve efficiency to meet the standards.

Participants also indicated that if Canada is going to capitalize on the shift to electrification, it will have to ensure the proper skills base is in place.  Dr. Alan Wassyng of McMaster in particular emphasized the need for more good software engineers (and good software!) to ensure that an electrified vehicle is not only more efficient, but also safe.  Participants felt there would be more need for electrical engineers and specialized technicians and technologists as well.

There was also plenty of discussion on investment and R&D incentives.  Participants made the point that the United States is currently very active in attracting manufacturing investment and has spent significant amounts on research and development related to electrification, lighter materials, and alternatives to the rare earth elements widely used in parts and components.  Several participants expressed the need for government support for both capital spending and innovation.  There was acknowledgement that the federally-funded Automotive Partnership Canada (APC) is very important and very supportive of the industry and automotive innovation.

Participants were well aware of Canada’s position in the global automotive industry.  Canada itself has a relatively small market, so access to larger markets and being competitive is important.  Innovation and taking steps to future investment are important, and it was clear participants believed there is an important role for government in ensuring the industry is able to prosper.

The event served as a tremendous first step in the APRC’s effort to engage industry, government, and academia in a discussion of how public policy can be used to ensure a competitive and sustainable domestic automotive industry in Canada.  Charlotte Yates, Principal Investigator for the APRC said “The event was engaging and tremendously informative” and indicated that she expected to arrange for more interactive events on other topics related to the project in the future.

The APRC is funded by the Automotive Partnership Canada, an initiative involving several federal research granting agencies.  The APRC partnership will be housed in the manufacturing policy research centre IMPAKT@MAC, and is a result of collaboration between McMaster, Ford, the CAW, Toyota, and several other universities.


February 14, 2013