After earning a strong reputation as one of the leading industrial research and development organizations, General Motors Corp.’s R&D labs hit a bump in the road in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The brain trust that brought the world some of the most significant scientific breakthroughs—the first electric self-starter, first moon car and the aircraft inertial guidance system used on the Boeing 747, among other developments—had become a victim of downsizing as the automaker’s market share began to tumble and leaders began to chip away at what were considered unneeded costs. While the cutbacks may have proven to be a good short-term move, there was little doubt damage had been done. GM began noticing it was having more difficulty in attracting top-notch scientific talent to its organization, as the geniuses of the day were heading to high tech labs with better reputations.
It was at this trying time that GM turned to Alan Taub, who joined the company in 2001 after an eight year stint at Ford, where he managed the automaker’s material sciences department and worked on safety systems development. “GM had lost some of its cachet,” Taub admits. “This was the chance to reestablish GMR as a premiere industrial research lab.” Within the past five years, GM has begun that reestablishment, with Taub pointing to the five-fold increase in patent activity and three-fold increase in publication rate as key barometers of progress. There are still a number of challenges to overcome, especially when it comes to attracting talent. Many college graduates still look at the automobile as an antiquated piece of industrial machinery. “At this point, we’re moving from 5% value-add to 30-40% value-add electronic control software on the vehicle, and there is already a shortage of software and electronic control engineers in the world,” he says. This situation is forcing GM and other automakers to develop research facilities outside of the U.S., including China and India. Taub says the U.S. must take radical steps to embrace science if it wants to return to preeminence in innovation: “I think it’s time for us to take a look at our output of engineers in this country.”
Taub’s team is making progress on several fronts, including smart materials—those that change shape or stiffness based upon changes in heat, magnetic or electrical field levels—with potential for use in vehicle structural parts. “You can now make things move without motors or electronics. This means that packaging restraints can go away. The vehicle now becomes a mechatronic device,” Taub says. Equally impressive is the work going on in the area of telematics, with the advent of two-way vehicle communication systems and WiFi technology. “We’re going to be able to download applications directly to the vehicle and communicate wirelessly. We are going to be able to reprogram our ECUs via OnStar,” he says. On the manufacturing side, Taub says scientists are working to better predict when tools will need maintenance to avoid potential workflow disruption, resulting in improved plant efficiency. One of the breakthroughs developed in the lab that recently hit the road is the new six-speed transmission developed in conjunction with Ford. “We came up with a way to analyze not tens or hundreds, but thousands of combinations of mechanical devices and we came up with an approach that could create a transmission with fewer clutches than anyone else,” Taub says.
While refusing to provide a number of scientists housed in GM’s Warren, MI, lab because of “competitive reasons,” Taub acknowledges the automaker is relying more and more on universities to conduct research. GM has dozens of partnerships with academic institutions worldwide and plans to build more alliances based on single-goal targets. “If you go back as recent as 10 years ago, more than 95% of the work in the GM R&D organization was done within these four walls and now we’re down to 70% or so,” he says. Of the 70% of projects being conducted in Warren, Taub says 30% are of an exploratory nature; 50% are what he calls “big projects” and 20% are near-term projects, the majority of which already have a place in a future vehicle program. How many of the exploratory programs reach fruition? Only 1-in-5. If more than 50% of the “big projects” make it to the road that’s not a success, according to Taub: “If your success rate in that area is more than 50%, I would argue you are not being stretchy enough.” Speaking of being stretchy, Taub says he expects total autonomous driving to be a reality by 2015.