Mark Phelan: Engineers’ show gives a glimpse into future of the auto industry

Technologies shaping the auto industry’s future take center stage at Cobo Center in Detroit this week.

Engineers, scientific professionals, executives and influential government officials from around the world are coming to town for the Society of Automotive Engineers’ annual World Congress Tuesday through Thursday.

Hot topics will include battery chemistry, downsizing engines, electric motors and building cars with exotic lightweight materials.

The congress is part trade show, part academic conference, part job fair. More than a thousand papers and a couple of hundred panels will describe where automotive technology is and where it’s headed.

“It’s a key event for leading technology companies from around the world,” Andrew Smart, SAE director of industry relations, said. “For three days, everybody from General Electric Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt to elementary school students will be involved in engineering at the congress.”

There’s a registration fee for the technical presentations and trade show, but the job fair is free for engineers.

“We’ve got 86 sessions on vehicle propulsion and powertrains alone,” Smart said, “everything from internal-combustion engines to fuel cells, hybrids and electric motors. There’s a lot of development going on to make electric motors smaller, lighter and more powerful and efficient.”

Work on new chemistries to reduce charging time and make batteries lighter and more powerful will get lots of attention.

Other sessions will address building a smart grid and sustainable electric generation, so the expected growth in electric vehicles won’t just trade one environmental problem for another.

Speakers and topics extend beyond the limits of what used to constitute automotive technology.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration boss David Strickland will headline a session on reducing driver distraction.

Anthony Levandowski, who built a robotic vehicle to deliver pizzas in San Francisco before becoming the business head for Google’s driverless car program, will also speak.

Self-driving vehicles and safety systems that take over to prevent accidents will get lots of attention at the congress.

“One of the keys is getting different perspectives beyond what was traditionally thought of as the auto industry,” Smart said. “We’ve got several sessions on what I call ‘automotive CSI.’ It’s how you reconstruct an accident to figure out what went wrong and how to avoid it in the future. The technologies go far beyond measuring skid marks on the road.”

About 25% of the Congress’ 10,000 attendees come from 45 countries outside North America. Germany, Italy, the U.K., Japan, Korea and China are the top sources of foreign visitors. Another 25% visit from outside southeast Michigan, conference director Patti Kreh said.

The SAE congress has been a staple for local hotels and restaurants for decades. It fell on hard times a few years ago. Top suppliers stopped bringing their newest and best technologies to the trade show, which had grown so large that it was hard for automakers’ engineers to find the real innovations.

Suppliers now have to pass a screening to get a spot on the display floor. The theme is “Innovators Only.” A panel of automakers’ engineers evaluates every supplier’s proposal to see whether it has anything new and interesting to show. About 150 companies passed the test and will have displays at Cobo.

The congress also includes a job fair for engineers. More than 50 companies — including heavy hitters like Bosch, John Deere, LG Chem, Magna, Ricardo and Volkswagen — will be taking applications from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday and 1 p.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday. Admittance to the job fair and advice from on-site résumé doctors is free.

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There’s also what promises to be a delightful series of competitions in which kids from kindergarten through high school compete to make balloon-powered jet cars, robot cars and fuel-cell powered vehicles.

Contact Mark Phelan at or 313-222-6731 or at .

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