The SAE Detroit Section and the MIT Enterprise Forum Great Lakes chapter selected winners this week in the annual Innovation Accelerator Competition. There were no cash prizes, but two of the five semi-finalists earned some free consulting, and all five were able to make their pitch to an audience that likely included some decision makers able to give the contestants a go-ahead.
Word of the competition got me thinking about innovation in the automotive industry and the extent to which Detroit is or is not fertile ground for new technology ideas. I’d be interested to hear what you think, but my hypothesis is that the ground is changing as the industry is changing. Market conditions are forcing automakers and Tier One suppliers not only to be more open to new ideas than they might have been in the past, but to be proactive in looking for innovation – especially if it addresses critical problems.
Take product design and development, for example. Clearly, companies want to – have to – reduce time-to-market and lower development and manufacturing costs. They also need to improve fuel economy. Will they pay attention to SAE/MIT winner Engineering Technology Associates (ETA)? The firm has devised a new way to design vehicle subassemblies. In one development project, ETA’s new method, the Accelerated Concept to Product (ACP) process, reduced the mass of a passenger compartment by 30%. Is that potential benefit worth a closer look?
The other SAE/MIT winner, a startup called Clean Energy Innovations, says it can get a 25% performance improvement out of batteries, whether for smartphones or electric vehicles. Is anyone not in favor of longer battery life for either one?
There are obviously good reasons why the auto industry can’t move as quickly as consumer electronics firms do, but are auto companies open to new ideas – and new sources of ideas? Does the auto industry still value the entrepreneurial spirit? We shall see.