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AUTO21 creates Canadian powerhouse in automotive R&D

Automobile research isn’t only about making more and better vehicles for less. As the AUTO21 NCE has discovered, it’s also about saving more young children from death and disability, reducing crime and reducing our reliance on oil.

Something unprecedented happened at the turn of the last millennium.

Universities, government, automakers and their suppliers came up with a 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 NCE ever funded and probably the broadest. 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 Peter Frise. "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 $60.2 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 over $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 the City of Waterloo to implement eco-friendly driving techniques that have been shown to reduce fuel and carbon emissions from fleet vehicles by 10-20%. The partnership won the 2014 Canadian Association of Municipal Administrators Willis Award for Innovation and the student researcher first prize in AUTO21’s TestDRIVE competition.

Saving more children from dying or being injured in car crashes is another priority at AUTO21. One project with Magna International led to the development of a safer booster seat that is easy for parents to install and 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. AUTO21 is now working with private sector partners to make these seats available to 16 First Nations communities across Canada as part of the broader First Nations Children’s Safety Project, in collaboration with local political leaders, police, firefighters, health care workers, child and welfare workers, and first responders. In another initiative, the project recently installed traffic signage on Walpole Island to encourage drivers to buckle up, and to not text and drive.

Ford Motor Company of Canada has also partnered with AUTO21 in the area of child safety. Blake Smith, Ford’s director of environment energy and vehicle safety, says the network’s strong research connections combined with comprehensive provincial health records made Canada a logical choice to carry out the research.

"Canada has fabulous health records so we were able to study the impact of restraint systems on children here," says Smith, who chairs AUTO21’s board. "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."

Ford and Magna are among several industry partners that have benefited from AUTO21’s substantial research output: more than 7,750 peer-reviewed scientific papers and over 300 patents, licences and agreements. Several of those patents are held by 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 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 is about coming up with sustainable and cost-effective materials that make cars lighter without sacrificing either performance or safety," says Dr. Sain. "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."

Dr. 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 in it. And, if you drive a Toyota that has aluminum wheels on it, those wheels come out of a plant in Burnaby BC that uses mold release technology that was 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.

"A project doesn’t end when a research paper is published. It’s when a company is making a product, selling it and creating jobs," says Dr. Frise.

Dave Pascoe, Magna’s VP 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 technology transfer activities to deploy the knowledge created in the research program, as well as solidify connections and foster the placement of network HQP in Canada’s industry.

"These collaborations are about creating the knowledge base that our industry needs to compete," says Smith. "We’re not going to compete with low-cost countries on low-tech, easy-to-do things. It’s the knowledge that drives the value-added that will make our manufacturing competitive."

"Of all the research collaborations I’ve been involved with over the years," adds Pascoe, "I’ve never seen one that has so much broad industry support behind it. It’s the biggest reason for AUTO21’s success."