Car sales may have hit the brakes during the global financial crisis, but automakers are still seeing value in expanding their R&D operations to bring more fuel-efficient and appealing products to market. 

Audi, a subsidiary of Volkswagen, for example, recently opened an R&D centre for Asia in Beijing. The facility, a joint venture with FAW Volkswagen, covers more than 8000 square metres and incorporates laboratories, prototype workshops, vehicle test facilities and a three-dimensional development environment.

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Rupert Stadler, chairman of the board of management of Audi, emphasises how Audi teams will work closely with customers in Asia. “They will ensure that valuable ideas and innovations from Asia can be integrated into the early conceptual development phase of our products,” he says. China accounts for more than one-quarter of Audi's global sales and Audi accounts for one-third of China's premium car market. In 2015, Audi plans to expand that business to produce 700,000 cars.

GM consolidation

While General Motors (GM) representatives indicate that customisation takes precedence over innovation in China’s market, the automaker continues to invest in R&D. In late 2012, GM opened phase two of its Advanced Technical Center in Shanghai.

The centre focuses on developing fuel-efficient cars and technological innovation and is described as one of the most comprehensive advanced automotive development centres in China. Nearly 250 engineers, designers and researchers are employed there in advanced vehicle design, powertrain and vehicle engineering, telematics and R&D. The goal is to create differentiation and a competitive product.

In the US, GM is concentrating on a new strategy in which all global engineering for vehicle architectures will be conducted from its Technical Center in Warren, Michigan. By doing so, the automaker can create greater consolidation and standardisation in product development.

GM is also gearing up to invest $1.5bn in its North American facilities. That includes $200m for a 12,800-square-metre test facility at its Global Powertrain Engineering headquarters in Pontiac, Michigan. GM expects to complete the expansion in mid-2014. The move will bring work currently being done in four locations under one roof, thereby reducing development timing for GM’s next-generation advanced propulsion technologies. GM R&D’s Propulsion Systems Research lab in Warren is also relocating to the Pontiac campus.

“These moves will help our entire Powertrain team work more effectively across the organisation to develop the technologies we need to build the world’s best vehicles for our customers around the world,” says Sam Winegarden, GM vice-president of global engine engineering. 

Centres of excellence

Although south-east Michigan has lost much of its vehicle manufacturing activities to other competitive locations in North America in recent years, the region remains a powerhouse for R&D. With the rise of telematics in auto infrastructures, however, some automakers are turning to hi-tech centres for their R&D.

Renault-Nissan Motor, a subsidiary of Nissan, is one example. In February, the automaker opened its first North American research centre in Silicon Valley. The centre collaborates with another Nissan research operation in Japan and focuses on the development of autonomous vehicles.

Renault-Nissan also operates a R&D facility in nearby Mountain View. That centre focuses on vehicle IT development, advanced engineering and the development of user interface and smart-grid technology for electric cars. Universities offer automakers an opportunity to expand R&D efforts by taking advantage of and partnering with premier engineering and interdisciplinary groups.

Academic roles

Automakers around the world today are facing a shortage of engineers, and find that universities offer access to young talent and an opportunity to arouse interest in the auto manufacturing sector.

Stanford University’s Center for Automotive Research (Cars) is an interdisciplinary automotive affiliates programme. Here faculty staff and students work with leading industry researchers to visualise the next generation of cars. Three labs within the programme focus on controls, automation and communication. One area in which Cars has been involved is creating solar cars: a car created by the Stanford Solar Cargo Project came fourth in the 2013 Bridgestone World Solar Challenge in Australia.

What makes the programme unique is its interdisciplinary approach and its network of more than 80 companies and organisations. Most are in California’s Bay Area and represent a broad spectrum of industries in IT, consumer electronics, aerospace and defence. Also involved are US federal agencies such as the Transportation Department and the Energy Department.

Volkswagen invested in Stanford in what is known as the VW Group’s Electronics Research Lab (VW ERL). “Through partnerships like the one with Stanford, VW is investing in the future of automotive innovation, paving the way for the development of next-generation solutions that will transform the vehicles of tomorrow,” says VW ERL executive director Dr Peter Oel.

Higher degrees

The Volkswagen Group of America (VWGoA) is also a major donor in Stanford’s automotive innovation lab (VAIL), which opened in 2009 at the university's school of engineering. Here Stanford researchers and international visiting scholars work with automotive equipment manufacturers and Silicon Valley experts to build on VWGoA's partnership with the university.

Similar to Vail is the 100-hectare International Center for Automotive Research and CUI-CAR campus in Greenville, South Carolina. The campus is the result of a collaboration between BMW, the state of South Carolina and Clemson University. Today BMW, Michelin, Timken, Toyota, Sun Microsystems and others partner with Clemson to focus on automotive research and other transport issues.

Making CUI-CAR unique is the fact that it is academically driven, meaning that it offers graduate degrees. More than 200 Clemson University students are pursuing masters or PhD degrees in automotive engineering.

Low-carbon research

BMW’s Information Technology Research Center is one of five buildings that encompass CUI-CAR. The 7800-square-metre facility includes six secure research zones, an IT operations centre and a research lab.

“Prior to its creation, BMW did not have a US research facility,” says John W Kelly, vice-president for economic development at Clemson University. “By partnering with CUI-CAR it found an inexpensive solution to implementing R&D continuity and finding a skilled workforce.”

In Europe, efforts are also being made to marry university research with the auto world. The UK government, Jaguar Land Rover and Tata Motors European Technical Centre are investing £92m ($150.8m) in creating the National Automotive Innovation Campus (NAIC) at the University of Warwick. The goal is to advance automotive technology, particularly in the area of fossil fuel-free engines, develop a stronger supplier base in the UK and address shortages of skilled R&D workers in the automotive supply chain.

“The NAIC will provide a state-of-the-art environment for collaborative automotive research and development, particularly into low-carbon technologies,” says Nick Fell, director and head of the Tata Motors European Technical Centre. “It showcases the kind of academic and industrial partnership that will help the UK to be a destination of choice for inward investment in high value-added automotive R&D.”