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Posted on Thu, Jan 17, 2013 : 5:58 a.m.

Washtenaw County's tread marks all over Detroit's 2013 North American International Auto Show

By Ben Freed

Over the next two weeks, auto executives and car enthusiasts will descend on the 2013 North American International Auto Show to gawk at new concept cars and the compare the latest updates with established models.

Washtenaw County’s high concentration of engineering talent and its proximity to the major manufacturing centers in southeast Michigan and across the Midwest have led some companies to develop some of their most cutting edge designs about 40 miles west of the Cobo Center.

Detroit is still the Motor City, but there’s a lot going on right next door as well.

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Toyota’s Ann Arbor pride

The most prominent display spots at the entrance of Toyota’s exhibit area were reserved for two cars that have close ties to the company’s Ann Arbor area technical center, the 2013 Avalon and the new Rav 4 Electric Vehicle (EV).

The Avalon was the first Toyota vehicle entirely designed and engineered in North America, with the bulk of that work being done in Washtenaw County. The battery system for the new Rav 4 was a joint project between engineers at the center and Tesla Motors.

“We’re really proud of the engineering, the styling, and all of the development work we’ve done in Ann Arbor and across the US,” vice president for engineering design and electronic services for Toyota North America Edward Mantey said.

“We’ve really managed to bring a lot of new technologies to these vehicles.”

Mantey said the company’s intent is to bring more of the design and engineering of North American vehicles to the local market. The local engineers have brought new technologies to both the Rav 4 and Avalon.

“The Avalon will be the first vehicle to adopt wireless cellphone charging,” he said.

“You will be able to just drop your phone on a pad in the car and it will charge, no need for wires. That technology was developed and engineered here in Ann Arbor.”

While the concept car unveiled at NAIAS, the Corolla Furia, was designed in Japan, there are new projects in the works at the TTC that could be unveiled at coming auto shows.

The greener side of Ford

The new Mustangs are flashy, but much of Ford’s NAIAS display was devoted to the technologies they have been producing that help cut carbon emissions and increase gas mileage, helping both the environment and their customers’ pocketbooks.

The biggest savings available come from the new hybrid and electric vehicle models on display, all of which are powered by batteries assembled at Ford’s Rawsonville Plant in Ypsilanti Township.

“All of the batteries we use in our C-Max, Fusion, and Focus hybrid or electric vehicles come from Rawsonville,” said John Davis, chief engineer for the C-Max, Focus and Fiesta.

Ford’s re-purposing and investment in the plant in 2010 came as Ypsilanti was preparing to deal with the loss of the General Motors Willow Run powertrain plant. Davis said the plant will continue to be both a resource moving forward, and could see even more work in the future.

“In the long term, we know we have to electrify more of our vehicles, and as we do that we hope to continue to leverage the resources we have and make the batteries at plants like Rawsonville.”

Scott Burgess, Detroit editor for Motor Trend Magazine, said that with the increase in sales of more fuel efficient cars, Ford will be looking to expand battery production. However, he cautions that a quantum leap in the underlying technology is still needed before all-electric catch on for the mainstream.

“People want to be able to charge their car quickly and then drive 300 miles, because that’s what they’ve been able to do with gas-powered cars,” he said.

“Either consumers will have to change their habits, which is unlikely, or we’ll see a new battery breakthrough. The good news for Washtenaw County is that with all of its research and development, it’s as likely as anywhere to be where that happens.”

Focus on user experience at Hyundai

One of the most stunning parts of Hyundai’s concept car unveiling was an on-screen demonstration of new technology that will allow a driver to control everything from the radio to navigation systems with the flick of a wrist.

The new technology, not available in vehicles on the market, creates hands-free controls that read the motion of a drivers fingers allowing you to turn down the volume by grasping an invisible knob and simply turning the air.

“It’s all part of what we do in Ann Arbor, which is designing the human-machine interface in our cars,” senior manager of electronic systems development John Robb said.

“Even in our cars available now we have our Generation 3 multimedia displays that are much easier to use for audio as well as navigation systems… We’re focusing on how to meet the consumers' needs in ways that are both reliable and safe.”

The research and development center near Ann Arbor that designs and tests new technologies for both Hyundai and Kia is in the middle of a new expansion and is still hiring for multiple positions.

UMTRI behind the scenes

Perhaps the biggest development coming out of the Ann Arbor automotive scene was not officially on the scene at all.

There is no Department of Transportation booth at NAIAS, and the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute does not have a display set up to show off its connected vehicles project. That didn’t mean it wasn’t on people’s minds.

“The government is here and they’re talking about the V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle communication) technology with everyone,” Robb said.

“We could have a decision as early as this year whether it will be mandated, recommended, or dismissed for all new cars. Ann Arbor is really the building block for that.”

Ben Freed covers business for You can sign up here to receive Business Review updates every week. Reach out to Ben at 734-623-2528 or email him at Follow him on twitter @BFreedinA2



Thu, Jan 31, 2013 : 3:20 a.m.

Um no. I'm sorry just no. I don't understand what city would support something that's not American. Ann Arbor is not a motor city and never will be. Ypsilanti has the real auto industry history. I would never compliment a city in the auto business if they support foreign car companies especially the Japanese companies.

Eric Mariacher

Fri, Jan 18, 2013 : 12:49 p.m.

Do driverless cars need V2V communication? To establish communication, you need to be at least 2 and share a common way to communicate. There are plenty of road stakeholders with which V2V communication will not be possible. Even if all vehicles shared the same way of communicating, the wild boar crossing the road in front of your car will not be able to communicate with your driverless car, at least not in a wireless way.

Ben Freed

Thu, Jan 17, 2013 : 4:02 p.m.

Hey everyone, let's hear what you're looking forward to most when the auto show opens to the public on Saturday. Any thoughts? Suggestions from those who've been before?