From Clunkers to technology

Jan. 1, 2020
Attention in Congress post-Clunkers is already shifting from propping up new vehicle sales to strengthening supplier-base component technology development.

Attention in Congress post-Clunkers is already shifting from propping up new vehicle sales to strengthening supplier-base component technology development. Now that dealers have cleared their lots of inventory — the short-term goal of the Clunkers program — and some auto factories temporarily begin to hum, long-term questions are coming to the fore. The biggest one is “What can the U.S. do to assure the domestic auto industry, including OEM and aftermarket suppliers, develops next-generation technology to assure that Detroit never goes in the tank again?

Federal assistance for advanced auto components is already flowing thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the stimulus package Congress passed last winter. That had a one-time $2 billion grant program for car batteries and associated electric drive components. These grants, which have to be matched dollar-for-dollar, will flow to 48 separate projects, but for technology which has already been created; more in a moment about why that distinction is important. The largest award will go to Johnson Controls, Inc., which will receive $229 million for battery production in Holland, Michigan, and for the production of battery components in Oregon by its partner, Entek. Johnson thru its partnership with the French company Saft already produces lithium ion auto batteries for Mercedes and BMW in France.

These grants will go to companies who have already developed the technology for plug in electric vehicles and electric vehicles. But what about the cutting-edge auto technology that domestic companies will have to develop to remain competitive in 2015 and 2020, and beyond? That is where the congressional action comes in. Just before Congress left Washington for its August recess, the House Science and Technology Committee passed by a unanimous vote the Advanced Vehicle Technology Act of 2009 (H.R. 3246), sponsored by Rep. Gary Peters (D-Michigan). The bill authorizes $550 million for 2010 and similar amounts over the following four years for the Department of Energy to carry out advanced technology vehicle and component part research and development. “This legislation will help ensure the cars of the future are built here in the U.S., creating good paying jobs and reducing our dependence on foreign oil,” Peters says. Besides the obvious types of research such as batteries and storage devices and hybridization and full electrification of vehicle systems, the money in the Peters bill would go for other technologies, also, such as friction and wear reduction, aerodynamics, rolling resistance and accessory power loads of vehicles and associated equipment, sensing, communications, and actuation technologies for vehicle, electrical grid, and infrastructure and aftertreatment technologies to reduce exhaust emissions.

Aftertreatment, for example, is a big market for suppliers, both for OEM and aftermarket equipment. Fred Schmidt, director, retrofit emissions for the Donaldson Company, Inc., says Donaldson has a very active aftermarket R&D program, and that the R&D required for the OEM market is often different than what is required to commercialize an aftermarket product. He didn’t know about the Peters bill; but was interested to hear about it.

Donaldson, of course, makes aftermarket products for commercial vehicles, not passenger cars. It terms of developing new technology, commercial vehicles have not been at the top of Congress’s list. It has been all about passenger cars. But that is changing. In addition to committee passage of the Peters’ bill July also saw the introduction of companion House and Senate bills focused on encouraging the implementation of safety technologies in commercial vehicle applications. The Commercial Motor Vehicle Advanced Safety Technology Act of 2009 provides a credit equal to 50 percent of the cost of any qualified commercial vehicle safety system that is placed into service during the tax year. So that is an incentive for trucking companies to buy aftermarket safety systems for use in their existing fleets. The bill cites brake stroke monitoring systems, lane departure warning systems, collision warning systems, and vehicle stability systems as technologies that have the potential to enhance the safety or security of the driver, vehicle, passengers, or load of a qualified commercial vehicle.