With tech assets, can Austin become key player in automotive industry? – Austin American

General Motors in Arlington and Toyota in San Antonio are the largest Texas
employers in the auto sector, with more than 2,500 jobs at each site.

GM’s assembly plant, where SUVs are now built, has been in Arlington since the
1950s. In January, GM announced it would invest $200 million and add 180
jobs at a new stamping plant — for producing hoods, fenders and roofs for
SUVs — alongside its assembly operations.

Austin has its own connections to the industry. To name a few, Freescale
Semiconductor is one of the world’s leading automotive chipmakers; SMSC, a
Long Island, N.Y., firm with 125 employees in Austin, has created the
high-speed network that connects the electronics for many European cars;
TASUS is an injection-molding company in Georgetown that makes plastic
components from acoustics to consoles; and U.S. Farathane, a plastics
company based in Auburn Hills, Mich., is opening a facility in North Austin.

Add to that the testing capabilities of Pecan Street Inc., an energy research
lab that plans to conduct real-world research on 100 Chevrolet Volts driven
by Austinites, and the potential of the Formula One racetrack that’s
scheduled to open in November.

UT is key

The University of Texas remains the key to expanding Austin’s automotive
future, Burkart said.

Last month, UT announced it is teaming with Oak Ridge National Laboratory in
Tennessee to become a federally funded national research center for advanced
battery research.

If selected, the two institutions would share $120 million to improve
batteries for utility-sized energy storage and electric vehicles.

Raymond Orbach, director of UT’s Energy Institute, has likened the competition
to Austin’s pursuit of MCC and Sematech, research centers that put the city
on the global technology map and expanded Austin’s role in semiconductor
manufacturing in the 1980s.

“We’ve got the best people in the world working on batteries,”
Orbach said of the university’s engineering and science faculty.

U.S. News World Report has ranked UT’s engineering programs among the
top 10 in the country.

The battery center would support as many as 100 researchers from the
university and industry in various disciplines to increase the performance
of batteries tenfold.

Orbach said the project would aim to bring the battery advancements to the
market in the next five years.

Meanwhile, the vehicle program at UT’s Center for Electromechanics is working
on everything from suspensions to hybrid vehicles and alternative fuels.

“If it has anything to do with passengers, it gets done in Michigan and
California,” said Bob Hebner, the center’s director. “We do
trains, boats, military vehicles, trucks, buses and tanks.”

But as cars become more electronic than mechanical, Hebner said, UT is
well-positioned for the future.

“I think it’s prudent for the city to look at this industry,” Hebner
said. “We are trying to be the go-to place for automotive. We’re on the
leading edge of what transportation is going to look like.”

Austin’s in: technology

Powering cars of the future is only part of the technological opportunity for
Austin.

Everything from cleaner emissions to better mileage to crash avoidance to
entertainment and information in the “connected car” requires
technological expertise.

Gadgetry is bringing Web applications — Facebook, Twitter and Google — along
with navigation and music streaming that can be activated by voice, touch or
steering wheel controls.

Futurists foresee vehicles that communicate, avoid traffic jams, reserve
parking and, in some instances, drive themselves.

“You don’t have to build the whole car,” Steven Nelson, Freescale’s
marketing director, said of Austin’s opportunities in the industry.

“Automobiles have more technology than anything without wings, and that’s
going to continue,” said Jim Wiseman, Toyota’s global vice president
for corporate communications.

But he said macroeconomic factors shouldn’t be ignored.

“Austin and Texas’ potential is related more to its standard of living,
cost of doing business and its proximity to Mexico,” Wiseman said.

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