SAE Congress '08: The climate of change in the auto industry

Ford's Derrick Kuzak

It's interesting how the overall tenor of the presentations and speeches changes depending on which conference, which collection of auto industry people, one attends. You'd think there'd be some consistency, but the reality is that the auto industry is mighty varied. We shine a light on one corner here at ABG, but there's a lot more to what's going on than just green tech.

To wit: the SAE World Congress opened this morning with five speakers in a session titled "Climate for Change." Featuring keynote speaker Frank Klegon, executive vice president of product development for Chrysler and panelists Derrick Kuzak, Ford's global product development group vice president, Timothy Manganello, chairman and CEO of BorgWarner, Edward Mantey, the vice president of engineering design at the Toyota Technical Center and Donald Walker, co-chief executive officer at Magna International, the session was billed as a gathering of minds on how the industry is changing. The sad news for green car fans is that increased fuel efficiency and reduced emissions are not necessarily at the top of everyone's list. I've written up what each of the five speakers said after the jump. There's audio, too.

Klegon's keynote didn't feature much of a green note and felt more like an extended product briefing than a look at how the auto industry is changing. Yawn. The only part of the speech that even touched on the environment was a mention of the expansion of the hybrid system into the Ram truck and how Chrysler's dual clutch transmission (developed by Getrag) should improve fuel efficiency by 6-8 percent, Klegon said. A common axle, currently only available in the 300C SRT, will also reduce vehicle weight and a front axle disconnect and active transfer case (a sort of part-time AWD system) that should offer vehicles with a one mpg improvement. (Note: you can listen to each of the presentations using the audio widgets at the end of this post).

Manganello's role as the CEO of a global US$6b company that works with automakers around the world gives him a good idea of what changes are coming down the road. In his speech, he laid out a vision of what the next half-decade will bring to the industry. Manganello didn't forecast any amazing advances in BEV or hydrogen fuel cell technology coming our way by 2013 - as we all could have guessed - but did say that the many gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicle that will be sold in the next few years will get incrementally more efficient. Manganello said that while the U.S.'s fuel economy standards currently lag behind those of Europe, Japan and China, this won't always be the case. Like with emissions regulations, where Europe, Japan and the U.S. are today's leaders, Manganello's view is that it's only a matter of time before the rules for fuel economy and emissions will converge on a global norm. This shift will require even more collaboration, something that BorgWarner is in favor of.

As for the cars we can or will soon be able to buy, the word is small. Manganello said that small cars are the growing segment, as over 75 percent of global growth in the auto industry during the next five years will be in the C-segment class or smaller. Regular readers will be able to name the vehicle that Manganello singled out as the one that's driving this change (click here if you don't know). Diesels, too, will only become more popular in the next five years, with the Europeans taking the lead in developing diesel hybrids. Dual clutch transmissions will, get ready, have a compound annual growth rate of 58 percent for the next five years.

Kuzak explained how Ford's global integration programs - not just the design language that intends to make every Ford look, feel and sound like a Ford anywhere else. Green issues? Nothing here. Move along. Walker took the Klegon route and spoke more about Magna's work than how the industry is changing. He did echo Manganello's sentiment that collaboration is the answer to the challenges that face the industry. Interestingly, the one issue that is pushing companies to work together more than any other, in Walker's opinion, is the move to greener cars. Mantey's speech started with the balance between the environment and industry and didn't stray too far from that thread. Sure, he talked up the technologies (particularly crash safety/avoidance systems) that Toyota is working on, but also touched on Toyota's environmental responsibility and future hybrid plans. Nothing new here, though.

So, that's one panel's view on how things are changing. The non-green-specific view here shouldn't be taken as meaning that emissions and fuel economy don't mean anything to the SAE. AutoblogGreen will be talking to dozens of people here in Cobo Hall over the next few days about these issues. It's just that, in the bigger scheme of things, greening the fleet is only one item in a list of things to think about when looking at the auto industry. Of course, we would have liked to hear more about zero-emission cars and how we're going to get them. This isn't that conference, though. Perhaps we'll get an earful at the AFVI conference in Vegas next month.

Speaking of earfuls, here are the presentations described above. Give a listen.

Frank Klegon

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Timothy Manganello

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Donald Walker

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Edward Mantey

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Derrick Kuzak

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