It's auto show season again - that time of year when vehicle manufacturers from around the world fill acres and acres of exhibition space in big-city convention centres with their brightest and best new products.
More than 50 concept cars and production vehicles were slated to make their world debuts at the North American International Auto Show Jan. 19 to 27 at the Cobo Center in downtown Detroit. Not only that, five Chinese manufacturers were booked to display their products.
Next month, more than 1,000 new cars and trucks will be on display at the Canadian International AutoShow at the Metro Convention Centre and the adjacent Rogers Centre in Toronto. Promoters promised that green technologies would be prominently featured, which is undoubtedly a worthy objective, but won't generate much buzz among the masses. In fact, the most exciting recent announcement came from India of all places.
Tata Motors Ltd., the sub-continent's largest automaker with 2006-07 sales of US$7.2 billion, upstaged the big car shows and the manufacturers themselves in mid-January by unveiling the Nano, or what it is calling the People's Car.
It is compact (3.1 metres long and 1.5 wide), fuel efficient, powered by an all-aluminum, two-cylinder 623 cc engine and it's inexpensive. The Nano is slated to hit the Indian market later this year with a pricetag of $2,500 and Tata has plans to launch it in Africa as well as South America.
There's no chance the vehicle will be making its debut on Canadian or U.S. roads in the near future - it wouldn't meet the safety and emissions standards of either country - but the Nano does send an important message.
"It's a signal that the automobile is becoming a product that many, many countries can build and want to build," says Peter Frise, an automotive engineer at the University of Windsor and scientific director of AUTO21, a research network of 110 Canadian industrial, government and institutional partners. "The automobile is a great product for creating jobs and many countries need car manufacturing to further their development."
In this country, the auto sector directly employs 130,000 people and many thousands more work in related industries. And we need to keep those jobs, but that is becoming more difficult all the time.
"We want a high standard of living, with a secure economy, good health care and good education for our children," Frise says. "Our economy has to generate high-value jobs and we have to compete for those jobs because every other country wants them."
He adds Canada will remain an auto-producing nation in an era of global competition only if it can stay at the forefront of research and development and that's what AUTO21 is all about.
The federal government is funding the initiative to the tune of $5.8 million annually and private-sector partners, including several automakers, parts companies and materials manufacturers like Stelco, DuPont and Alcan, are providing matching funds. That supports a network of 265 researchers at 42 academic institutions, government research facilities and private-sector labs. They are working on dozens of projects. Many are confidential for competitive reasons - manufacturers do not want to give away what could become significant competitive advantages.
Some involve manufacturing processes. Others are looking for improved materials that will deliver enhanced safety and fuel efficiency. Many are looking for ways to get more mileage out of a litre of gasoline while reducing emissions. "All aspects of the auto industry are changing," Frise says. "The status quo is not an option."
He adds that a number of AUTO21 projects have produced tangible commercial results. Canadian Auto Parts Toyota, Inc. manufactures aluminum wheels in Delta, B.C., based on AUTO21 research. In the fall of 2006, Canadian Tire stores across the country began selling the Clek Booster Seat, which enhances the safety of children in automobiles. Scientists funded by the network developed the product and a division of Magna International makes it.
"We have to concentrate our efforts at the high end of the technological scale so our workers can compete," Frise concludes.
Otherwise, Canada's automobile sector could be marginalized or greatly reduced by ferocious competition from Asia and other low-cost manufacturing centres like so many other industries.
(D'Arcy Jenish can be reached at email@example.com)