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SAE president talks hybrids, electric cars, China, supplier electronics and software expertise

In April 2009, the executive nominating committee for SAE International ( named Andrew Brown, Jr., Ph.D. its candidate for 2010 SAE International president. He was sworn in as president January 2010.

Dr. Brown began his automotive career in 1973 at GM as a project engineer at manufacturing development.

In between his time at GM and today, a couple of noteworthy things occurring along the path of Dr. Brown’s career include being appointed by the National Research Council (NRC) to serve as chair of the Committee on Fuel Economy of Medium and Heavy Duty Vehicles and also helping create USAutoPARTs (United States Automotive Partnership for Advancing Research and Technologies) where he was later appointed chairman.

Additionally, Dr. Brown has served, or is currently serving on, the boards of the following organizations: Ford Design Institute, Society of Automotive Engineers Inc., Engineering Society of Detroit College of Fellows, Convergence Education Foundation, National Inventors Hall of Fame, Convergence Transportation Electronics Foundation, National Council of Engineering Examiners, State of Michigan Board of Professional Engineers, WSU College of Engineering Board of Advisors.

Also balancing Dr. Brown’s current position as president with SAE are his numerous leadership responsibilities with Delphi Corporation as executive director and chief technologist.

We talk with Dr. Brown about SAE’s role and influence in the global automotive electronics sector; trends taking shape under the hood here and abroad, hybrid electric vehicles (HEV) and electric vehicles (EV), the importance for suppliers and component manufacturers to have strong capabilities in both electronics and software if they want to be competitive, and more.

Transcripts from that discussion follow… In early September 2010, a senior Ford executive told the Wall Street Journal the U.S. auto maker expects 70 percent of its global growth this decade to come from the Asian Pacific region and Africa.

Looking at China’s automobile market, how are Chinese car buyers’ electronics and technology needs and wants different from those of Western car buyers?  And are there any trends SAE is seeing in the Chinese car market?

Dr. Brown: I was in China just recently and we met with several government officials and professional societies, as well as OEMs in China.

This is a very timely and very good question.

We shouldn’t look at the different regions or markets as one being favored over another.  I think each market, each country, has its own unique set of drivers defined by the customer and by the marketplace.

With respect to China, China’s market is driven by the government’s real priority, to move more toward hybrid electric vehicles (HEV) and electric vehicles (EV).

China has stated a priority to rely more on electricity as the primary energy mode for transportation.

Through 2015, China’s HEV and EV market is expected to grow dramatically. And, it will, by that time period, outstrip the growth of Europe and outstrip the growth of the United States, in terms of the number of HEV and EV vehicles on the road. Given the population of China, this is a real possibility.

The China government has put in place regulations that motivate vehicle manufacturers and suppliers to move in this direction. Additionally the Chinese government is providing incentives to consumers to purchase these types of vehicles, and industry, in fact, is making substantial investments in anticipation of this expanding market.

So the assertion that China is going to see a significant growth in HEV and EV vehicles is a strong possibility out through 2015 and beyond. Do you see automotive electronics engineering in China’s vehicles differing much from engineering technology in, say, India’s vehicles, where another emerging market exists?

Dr. Brown: Well, again, you have to look at the uniqueness of the marketplace. Both regions. Both countries. India and China; being developing economies, certainly will be reliant upon affordable, reliable transportation.

Both India and China will want to see vehicle solutions people can afford and vehicle solutions people can rely upon.

SAE International President Dr. Andrew Brown talks with members of the media  during the SAE International Vehicle Battery Summit held September 1-3, 2010 in Shanghai, China.

I think one of the major differences between India and China will be the infrastructure on which these vehicles can be utilized.

I think this will be the largest differentiator.

Both markets will want to see solutions crafted to meet their individual market needs and requirements that are affordable for the people in those markets. What technology capabilities should organizations serving the automobile electronics industry invest in if they don’t already have these capabilities today?

Dr. Brown: As a society of engineers, we’re seeing the emergence of electronics as a significant discipline, a significant technology.

We’re seeing the transformation of transportation, whether it be a plane, a truck or car to be more dependent upon electronics and software. The transportation vehicle is moving from being a mechanical device to now having a larger proportion that is electrical / electronic.

And so it’s very important suppliers and component manufacturers have a strong capability on the electronics and software side if they want to be competitive in this new technological era. What do you see as some of the top challenges getting North American consumers hooked on electronic or electric vehicles?

Dr. Brown: North America is different, in the sense the price of gasoline here is still comparatively low, when you look at Europe and Asia and other parts of the world.

The price of gasoline is a primary motivator for people desiring more efficient transportation.

As long as the price of gasoline is low, there are fewer incentives to adopt new technology, even if doing so improves fuel economy of the vehicle. The price of gasoline in North America is the big gorilla in the room, so to speak.

In terms of any further adoption, we’re going to have to see how well vehicles like the Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan Leaf do in the marketplace.

If people readily accept the Volt, in terms of its ability to provide reliable transportation that is also cost effective, then they will adopt it and they will gravitate to HEVs and EVs.

The Nissan Leaf is a different solution, being more of a pure electric vehicle, a different solution than the Chevrolet Volt.

But again, if a Nissan Leaf is successful on its own merits, this will stimulate interest and further adoption of these technologies.

So, the end of this year / beginning of 2011: where these vehicles start to become available and being to be used more widely –  is going to be a very critical period for the adoption of HEV and EV technologies.

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