MIT: The Auto Industry’s Other Research Lab

Back in the 1940s, most of the collaborative work between the automotive companies and academic institutions was related to technical projects. Engine development, materials science, and lubrication technology were the rage back then. They still are major fields of research, but in the past decade, the collaborations have expanded to more cross-functional endeavors. “We’re looking at the ramifications of technology,” says Phil Abramowitz, manager of External Relations and Technical Affairs for FordMotor Co. (Dearborn, MI).

Ramifications of technology? This is not a specific engine problem or material problem; this is a multi-disciplinary issue, involving multi-disciplinary research. But the engine or material problem can be the catalyst to studying the multi-disciplinary issues.

And where best to study those? Academia.

Here then are some examples of current automotive-related research at just one institution: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology(MIT; Cambridge, MA).

Center for Technology Policy and Industrial Development (CTPID)

As its name implies, CTPID focuses on industry and policy issues related to science and technology. Within CTPID is the International Motor Vehicles Program (IMVP), now about 20 years old. The book The Machine That Changed the World was based on MIT’s five-year, 14-country, $5-million IMVP study of the worldwide auto industry.

IMVP’s value was in benchmarking automotive technology, research and development, engineering, manufacturing, customer service, and related activities. “There’s no other way for companies to get insights, deep and broad insights, into the kinds of questions [IMVP researched] just by looking at their own projects,” says Michael Cusumano, professor of Management at the Sloan School of Management.

But now that research is winding down. Diminishing returns have set in, though newer industrial entrants, such as the Korean, South African, and Brazilian automakers, find the studies still useful. Another book is forthcoming as a wrap up.

MIT Materials Systems 
Laboratory (MSL)

MSL is also under CTPID’s umbrella. Over the last 15 years, MSL has developed dozens of “technical cost models” that project the cost of using alternative technologies to manufacture products. A new research program called “Automobile Materials Competitiveness: Prospects for the Next Decade” focuses on the related issues of automobile manufacturing and materials production. MSL’s goals are to study the effects of automotive technologies on materials development, identify new trends in automotive materials, quantify economic and technical advantages of alternative materials, and anticipate the effects of regulations, consumer preferences, and the environment on material competitiveness. The research will also explore how materials can better the “industrial ecology” of the auto industry, thereby maximizing recyclability and minimizing the energy used in production.

Industry Consortium on Advanced Automotive Electrical/Electronic Components & Systems—42v Power Net

The number of electrical and electronic components in cars is increasing and will continue to increase. Heated windshields, communications devices, computerized engine management, onboard audio/visual personal entertainment systems, environment control systems: today’s conventional 12-volt electrical systems simply aren’t sufficient to handle the future power requirements in a car. The current thinking at MIT is to create a new power standard: 42 volts. One offshoot of the research in this standard is in determining how to move the industry from 12 to 42 volts. The MIT consortium is important because the member companies represent a “large and diverse group of stakeholders—the people who will have to work together to make this happen,” says Thomas Keim, consortium co-director and research scientist in MIT’s Laboratory for Electromagnetic and Electronic Systems, where the consortium is based.

Center for Innovation and Product Development (CIPD)

CIPD focuses on four main areas, all with the core theme of product development:

  • Product portfolio definition focuses on issues such as the systematic methods for organizing product information and maintaining coherence of a product definition across many sources of information, people, and organizations.
  • Information-based product development research seeks to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the work required in product development, especially in this day and age of globalization.
  • Enterprise strategy involves the management of technology and the taking of knowledge about organizational design and dynamics across organizations.
  • Enterprise learning studies how companies can effectively deploy new tools, processes, and methods for product development across the enterprise.

Through CIPD, a new curriculum called “Product Development for the 21st Century” (PD21) was created. With PD21, instead of engineers and managers coming to MIT, MIT has exported the curriculum to partner academic institutions. University of Detroit Mercy and the Rochester Institute of Technology (Rochester, NY) are the first two partners providing this curriculum.

CC++: The MIT Media Laboratory’s Car Consortium

To get a sense of the digital automotive future, visit the MIT Media Laboratory. Although some of the work there borders on what some people might consider to be unusual (dancing shoes, playing music without instruments, wearable computers), Judy Brennen, a GM assistant Vehicle Line Executive and a University Relations team coordinator, describes some of the Media Lab’s work as “far-out stuff that’s really cool to a lot of engineers.” Adds Ford’s Abramowitz, “We look at how you can take what they’ve done, and apply it within your environment.”

The Car Consortium (CC++) is focused on the implications of digital technologies for the automotive industry, particularly:

  • Automobiles as Interface, which explores verbal and non-verbal communications between the driver and the automobile.
  • Cars with Connections, which explores cars talking amongst themselves, such as in managing traffic situations.
  • Design and Features, which experiments with designer interfaces, such as responsive paint.
  • Attitudes and Automobiles, which explores people and their relationships with cars.

In affective computing research, the Media Lab is helping computers understand human emotion and detect emotional states, even anticipate human actions. One possible application, particularly in the Boston metropolitan area, is in “road rage.” When a driver clutches the steering wheel, sensors in the steering wheel can detect differences in the drivers biometrics, such as increasing heart rate and perspiration. To counteract this angst, the car can say something soothing, like “Yeah, that driver is a jerk, but the rule is that you can’t drive faster than the car ahead of you.”

Too far out? Using the research from the Lab’s Physics and Media Group in field-sensing technology, NEC in Europe has created “smart airbags” that can distinguish between a rear- or forward-facing baby, thereby giving the airbag the smarts when not to deploy. This technology is available in 1999 Acuras. The same technology can be used to read any occupant’s size and position to determine the most effective airbag action.

Sloan Automotive Laboratory

“We’re researching how engines operate with the objective that if we understand that, we can make them operate better and we can resolve some of their problems or constraints,” explains John Heywood, director of the Sloan Automotive Laboratory and professor in Mechanical Engineering.

The automotive lab is an independent lab associated with MIT’s Mechanical Engineering department and MIT’s Energy Laboratory. Since 1981, one consortium within the lab has focused on combustion fuel emissions; another since 1989 has focused on lubrication, friction, and oil consumption. The lab has developed models, sets of physical assumptions, and equations to describe phenomena. These models often become computer programs, as well as development and diagnostic tools, that companies can use in their R&D.

Accessing MIT’s Research

The formal entré to MIT is through its Industrial Liaison Program (ILP), which has the slogan “50 years of linking corporations to the future.” ILP is both focal point and matchmaker, offering member companies access to the university, its faculty, staff, and research programs. Member companies are assigned an In-dustrial Liaison Officer who tends to be a technical person, engineer, or scientist with as much as 20 to 30 years of industry experience. Many have Ph.D. or MBA degrees. Some were corporate presidents. Many are MIT alumni. The officer meets with the member company’s executives and engineers to discuss the company’s current needs, its strategic plans, and how it sees MIT fitting into that. The officer then acts as the interface between MIT and member company, as well as the relationship manager for both parties and management consultant.

At minimum, Fortune 500 companies pay $75,000 per year for access to MIT. Some companies, join as a group, as an industry consortia, which reduces the individual corporate membership fees. Over 200 corporations worldwide belong to ILP, including the major automakers and their suppliers around the world.

The fact is, companies generally pay much more. Ford has pledged $20 million to MIT over the next five years for specific partnerships. It is a lot of money, admits Abramowitz, but it’s meant to be a significant commitment for both parties. “We’ve committed the money, and MIT has committed that they will bring world-class faculty, research staff, and students to work with us.”

GM has made similar financial investments. MIT receives the largest allocation of grant monies to an academic institution from the GM Foundation: $1.5 million over five years. About $100,000 of the $300,000 allocated this year goes to sponsoring scholarships, diversity, and university clubs, such as the solar car club, Society of Women Engineers, and the National Society of Black Engineers.

On top of that, the Media Lab’s Car Consortium fee is $200,000 to cover three years. CTPID is probably another $250,000. IMVP also has a fee. Big dollars, yes, agrees Brennen, but these programs complement what GM is already doing and help the company discover other paths it may need to go. Plus, it helps recruiting by improving GM’s presence on campus.

The Value of Academic Research

Talking philosophically for a few moments, Daniel Roos, associate dean of Engineering Systems and director for the newly formed Engineering Systems Division of the School of Engineering, claims with slight exaggeration that at one time, industry viewed academia “as tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking individuals who had never met a payroll, had no idea what the bottom line was, and were living in a dream world. Conversely, academicians viewed industry as money-hungry capitalists with absolutely no concern for social impact.

“Through these relationships, the consortia, there’s mutual understanding and respect.” And learning.