Jared Kosters

Imagine the ways we used to drive in the year 2000. There were few, if any, electric vehicles (EVs) on the road, or charging stations in parking garages. Vehicles lacked technology to actively prevent human-caused crashes, keep drivers inside the lanes, wirelessly connect to smart devices (which also did not exist yet), or automatically parallel park. You couldn’t call an Uber to take you home from the airport or track the location of your driver to estimate your wait time.

The U.S. automotive industry has helped contribute to the rapid innovation in transportation methods and technologies as the nation’s largest manufacturing sector, exporter, job-producer, and investor in research and development (R&D). Several public-private partnerships under the Manufacturing USA network work with the automotive industry to pave the way for the future of automotive mobility, boost U.S manufacturing leadership, prepare the next-generation workforce, and accelerate the development of clean energy manufacturing technologies. Through Nexight’s work with these institutes, we’ve developed key insights into future mobility trends and the unique role that Manufacturing USA Institutes can serve to move them forward:

1. Vehicles need lightweight designs.

Technology investments into advanced battery and fuel cell technologies (EVs and hybrids) and the addition of more onboard autonomous safety systems and sensors for self-driving and crash-avoidance could make vehicles heavier and less fuel-efficient. Lighter vehicles use less fuel and produce fewer emissions, and advanced lightweight materials are helping automakers further reduce vehicle weight to account for the weight of new technologies.

The Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI) is launching R&D projects to develop clean energy manufacturing technologies that will make it cheaper and easier for automakers to design autonomous vehicles with high-performance polymer-based carbon fiber composites. Similarly, Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow (LIFT) is demonstrating novel processing methods to develop and deploy advanced lightweight materials manufacturing technologies for automotive applications.

2. Sensors and lidar technologies will help make driving safer.

Automakers are equipping vehicles with more sensors, cameras, and radars to keep drivers safe and comfortable. Lidar sensors—a light-based 3D mapping technology—provide autonomous safety systems with “eyes” to see and respond to potential hazards. Today’s lidar technology looks like a large box mounted on top of a self-driving vehicle, but soon those sensors may be smaller and discreetly integrated within the contours of the vehicle body.

The AIM Photonics Institute is working on industry-wide solutions for the design, manufacture, and integration of lidar technologies for automotive applications.

3. More connectivity = more cybersecurity risks.

The additional sensors and complex electronics in vehicles put them at increased risk for being hacked into and having driver vehicle data compromised.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently announced the Cybersecurity Institute, which will help reduce cyber vulnerabilities for sensor and control technologies while subsequently sharing expertise and lessons learned with the broader community of U.S. manufacturers.

4. Electrification and smart grid modernization are key technology enablers.

Innovations in transportation will require a transformation of our nation’s electric grid infrastructure to enable accessible charging and autonomous vehicle communications. Smart grid technologies coupled with 5G mobile internet infrastructure will help municipalities significantly reduce energy consumption and mitigate traffic congestion.

PowerAmerica is funding multiple R&D efforts to improve electrification, from improving the cost and performance of low-cost power flow controllers for smart grid applications to demonstrating next-generation, high-efficiency EV fast charger prototypes.

5. The world is shifting toward a more sustainable, circular economy.

Automakers—particularly those operating globally—are steadily responding to regulatory shifts to manufacture more recyclable vehicle designs to prevent end-of-life vehicle waste from overwhelming our landfills and oceans.

The Clean Energy Smart Manufacturing Innovation Institute (CESMII) is modernizing U.S. R&D infrastructure by helping manufacturers adopt advanced sensors, controls, and computing architectures that lead to substantive improvements in productivity, efficiency, and performance. On the other side of the country, the REMADE Institute is advancing key industrial platform technologies for the reuse, recycle, and remanufacture of end-of-life materials including metals, fibers, polymers, and electronic waste.

6. Electronics and interior displays are becoming fancier.

Shared mobility, personalized interiors, and autonomous safety systems are meshing with advanced electronics to bring heads-up displays (HUDs), flexible organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays, and touch-sensitive electronics into next-generation automotive interiors.

NextFlex is developing low-cost, flexible hybrid electronics to replace traditionally rigid circuit boards while satisfying both aesthetics and safety requirements of future automotive applications.

The mobility ecosystem has undergone a radical shift since the 20th century as it keeps pace with our socioeconomic needs and technological desires. Catalyzing this innovation starts with manufacturing. The Manufacturing USA Institutes are not only essential to this advanced manufacturing, they are uniquely positioned to coordinate public and private investments in promising technologies that strengthen our nation’s economic and national security interests.