Auto21 winds down
It's a wrap after a 14-year run.
The national automotive research network called AUTO21 is winding down operations because federal funding is no longer available. It wraps up in March after completing two seven-year cycles through the Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) program.
Looking back to the beginning, universities, government, automakers and their suppliers came up with the plan for a pan-Canadian research network to improve the safety and sustainability of automobiles and the competitiveness of Canada’s $85-billion-a-year auto industry.
Launched in 2001, AUTO21 was the largest and probably broadest initiative NCE ever funded. This wasn’t just engineers talking to engineers. It involved professionals of all stripes, from medical doctors and nurses to scientists, sociologists, lawyers, psychologists, geographers, human kinetics people and artists.
Prior to AUTO21, there were relatively few automotive researchers in Canada. Today, as the network nears the end of its 14-year mandate, nearly 200 researchers and more than 400 highly trained graduate and post-doctoral students from across the country are collaborating with some 120 companies and other external partners on 38 research projects. Since 2001, the network has trained more than 2,500 young professionals who are contributing to the competitiveness of a sector that supports more than 500,000 direct and indirect jobs, and represents 12% of Canada’s GDP and a large portion of exports.
“It takes experts from multiple fields, working closely with industry partners, to come up with solutions that address the three biggest challenges that continue to face the automotive sector: cost, quality and performance,” says Dr. Peter Frise, scientific director and CEO of AUTO21 in Windsor, Ont. “That includes helping companies meet stringent fuel economy, emissions and safety regulations, all while meeting consumer demands for new features such as vehicle connectivity, enhanced comfort and infotainment.”
Ottawa has invested $81.1 million in the network over the past 14 years, matched by approximately $68.8 million from its partners. These investments have changed the industry and society in ways it could never have imagined.
Just ask residents in Winnipeg, a city once known as the car theft capital of North America. Today, car thefts have dropped an astounding 90% and vehicle insurance premiums have been cut by more than $30 million. Manitoba’s Attorney General credited this success to an AUTO21 project on antisocial behaviour and the automobile. The network is now working to replicate these results in other Canadian cities.
In Ontario, AUTO21 researchers worked with Waterloo to implement eco-friendly driving techniques that have shown to reduce fuel and carbon emissions from fleet vehicles by 10% to 20%.
Saving more children from death or injury is another priority. A project with Magna International led to the development of a safer booster seat that’s easy for parents to install and more appealing to children who complained that existing products were uncomfortable and too “babyish.” That research led to the launch of Clek Inc., a Toronto company that exports its products worldwide.
“Canada has fabulous health records so we were able to study the impact of restraint systems on children here. This is knowledge that will inform our future products and safety approaches globally. It would have been much tougher to do this research outside of Canada,” says Blake Smith, Ford’s director of environment, energy and vehicle safety, and AUTO21’s chair.
Ford and Magna are among several industry partners that have benefited from AUTO21’s substantial research output that includes more than 7,750 peer-reviewed scientific papers and more than 300 patents, licences and agreements. Several of those patents are held by Dr. Mohini Sain, the dean of forestry at the University of Toronto and a pioneer in the development of bio-based industrial materials. His collaboration with Ford, Magna and The Woodbridge Group led to the founding of Greencore Composites Inc., a clean tech company based in Sarnia, Ont. that uses renewable materials from wood pulp and agricultural waste to create strong composite materials for automotive parts. The manufacturing process uses less energy and the components are lighter, resulting in fewer greenhouse gas emissions and less reliance on petroleum-based plastics.
“This type of research would have been difficult to do without industry’s support. That’s essential if you want to turn fundamental research into an application,” says Sain.
Frise says results from AUTO21 research have already moved into production. “You can buy a car right now that’s made in Canada that has AUTO21 bio-based plastics it in. And, if you drive a Toyota that has aluminum wheels on it, those wheels come out of a plant in Burnaby, BC that uses mould release technology developed by AUTO21 researchers.”
A recent independent economic impact study found that AUTO21’s research has provided a 12 to 1 return on investment for partners and generated more than $1.1 billion in estimated economic and social benefits.
Dave Pascoe, Magna’s vice-president of engineering and R&D, says the network’s greatest legacy has been its ability to bridge the gap between universities and industry.
“Universities are very good at doing fundamental research but there are gaps in bringing that research to market. By working with an industry partner, you’re assured of working on topics that are relevant to industry and have a direct route to commercialization. It turns all that time, effort and money into a bigger return for the Canadian economy,” says Pascoe.
AUTO21 will continue its technology transfer activities for another year to deploy the knowledge created in the research program.
This is an edited version of an article contributed by AUTO21.