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The Next Production Line — R&D

Much of the future of Alabama’s auto industry will depend on emergence of R&D centers. A collaboration between Auburn University and the University of Alabama foreshadows such development

Bharat Balasubramanian, of the University of Alabama, and John Evans, of Auburn University, are part of a new plan to jump start automotive research in the state.

Bharat Balasubramanian, of the University of Alabama, and John Evans, of Auburn University, are part of a new plan to jump start automotive research in the state.

If the South is to continue developing as an automotive corridor, it must create strong collaborative research centers that will spur continuing innovation at regional automotive plants and beyond, to help keep manufacturers competitive and demand for new vehicles high. That was a key theme of a recent Southern Automotive Research Alliance (SARA) summit held in Washington, D.C.

“Automotive plants have technical challenges, and they need nearby research centers to help them overcome them,” says Ron Davis, president of the Alabama Automotive Manufacturers Association (AAMA).

Universities are able to host research centers, drawing upon the brain power of professors, instructors, students and industry experts in the greater automotive community. “But we need universities to work together so their efforts aren’t duplicated and various areas of expertise can be called upon when needed,” Davis says.

He points to a budding collaborative relationship between the often competitive University of Alabama and Auburn University as indicative of what needs to happen more in the South in general. Davis also applauds what the two universities are doing individually to develop automotive research in the state.

John Evans is a long-time automotive manufacturing research leader at Auburn and Bharat Balasubramanian, relatively new on the automotive engineering design scene at the University of Alabama. Both men are AAMA board members. They have begun brainstorming about what they can do to support each other’s efforts and create more synergy for automotive research in Alabama. “We’ve got four big (automotive manufacturing) companies here and we need to get the major universities aligned on their research needs,” Balasubramanian says.

“Dr. B,” as Balasubramanian’s students call him, joined UA after retiring in 2012 from his position as vice president of group research and advanced engineering responsible for product innovations and process technologies for Mercedes-Benz in Stuttgart, Germany. Balasubramanian’s 40-year career as a research and development engineer has included his helping lead a series of major advances in automotive technology, including semi-autonomous driving, as well as creating several renowned automotive research centers.

At UA he has been working to help develop interested engineering students into automotive researchers. “To stay at the forefront of the automotive industry here in Alabama, we must position ourselves higher on the food chain, as research and development leaders,” says Balasubramanian, who currently serves both as a UA engineering professor and the executive director of the cross-discipline Center for Advanced Vehicle Technologies.

Evans joined Auburn’s faculty in 2001 after 17 years at DaimlerChrysler Corp. in Huntsville. Currently he serves as director of the National Science Foundation’s Southern Alliance for Advanced Vehicle Manufacturing, associate director of NSF’s Center for Advanced Vehicle Electronics and interim director of the Thomas Walter Center for Technology Management.

He agrees with Balasubramanian that Alabama universities need to take a greater leadership position in automotive R&D to foster the industry. “Auburn has done much in the area of automotive research and has formed collaborative partnerships, but can do more,” says Evans, who has directed more than $6 million in research at Auburn related to vehicle electronics and manufacturing.

Kathy Hagood is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Homewood.

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