The annual Society of Automotive Engineers Congress and Exposition is arguably the greatest gathering of industrial brain power in the world.
Last year, more than 50,000 engineers attended SAE. A similar figure is expected for this year's event, which runs from March 6-9 at the Cobo Center in Detroit.
Automotive News Europe talked about current trends to three leading automotive engineers ahead of this year's SAE.
Merging the research and development activities of the fiercely independent Daimler-Benz AG with those of the former Chrysler Corp. has been Bernard Robertson's challenge for much of the past year.
Robertson, senior vice president for engineering and technology, also oversees truck platform engineering for DaimlerChrysler's North American operations, a key profit center for the global enterprise.
Robertson spoke from his office in Auburn Hills, Michigan, USA with Automotive News Europe's Aaron Robinson. Edited excerpts follow:
Now that you're a global company, what are your research and development priorities?
We spent the past year or so reconciling what is done in Germany and what is done in the USA and trying to take advantage of the enormous power of the combined company. We want to make sure that we don't duplicate effort but learn from each other. We're going to tend to play to the respective strengths that have been built up on both sides of the Atlantic. But the basic product challenges haven't changed as a result of the merger.
How is the r&d agenda being set for DaimlerChrysler?
In a couple of ways. The research agenda is set jointly between Stuttgart and here. We have a couple of councils that meet here and in Stuttgart to review research projects and progress. The automotive council oversees the production r&d agenda. Tom Gale (executive vice president of product development and design) is basically the keeper of that council. With all the work that is going on around the world, obviously it is difficult for one group to have its fingers in everything, but that is the focal point. That is where questions are asked such as, 'Are we sharing enough? Are we making the right choices as to where we put our emphasis?'
Does the recent announcement that DaimlerChrysler's European and North American units will be somewhat autonomous affect r&d?
No. The emphasis there was and is a necessary and desirable reminder that we've got to run the business here and that this is a very large chunk of the company. We can't get so distracted that we're all in Germany learning what's going on with a hundred different projects while there's nobody back here running the store. The first order of business is to run the business, and we've got a huge chunk of the business to run effectively.
How does the German way of conducting r&d differ from that used in the USA?
The German practice has been, typically, to keep very robust r&d capability in-house with a fairly rigorous procedure for deciding what the priorities are and what the project should be. Intellectual property is a precious commodity to them. After the thing has been developed and the proof of concept established and patented, the suppliers are brought in to make it.
Before the merger, our approach was almost the opposite. We joined into partnerships with people and didn't worry much about who owned the intellectual property, as long as we had nonexclusive free license to it if we helped to develop it. We would bring the supplier partners into the earlier stage, share the objective and work on the things together. The supplier would typically be at liberty - perhaps after some period after exclusivity, perhaps not - to sell the thing to other people.
Because both companies were successful and came into this merger from a position of strength, they felt their way had a lot of merit and maybe even was the reason why each respective company was successful. We're basically using the best of both approaches.
Would the old Chrysler have been able to keep up with all the safety, environmental and fuel economy issues facing the industry had it not merged?
It is getting more and more and more challenging and difficult to keep up. Many of the partnerships that we formed with the supply base were a way of deploying more expertise and more horsepower to solving problems. I would argue that we were smaller but we were better at utilizing those kinds of resources and keeping a sharp focus on what we needed to do. At the margin, it's certainly a plus for us to have the added technical capability that we now have.
We've still got to support this whole array of vehicles at the top end of the market that we didn't have before. It's much more important than it was before to be a major player in Europe and in other parts of the world.
Before, we could afford to just take an opportunistic approach to other markets around the world. But they were always subordinate to the North American region. We don't have that luxury anymore. The challenges are greater and the scope is broader.