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A Nerd’s-Eye View Of NAIAS

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Flux capacitor... fluxing... (WWJ photo/Matt Roush)

Flux capacitor… fluxing… (WWJ photo/Matt Roush)

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DETROIT (WWJ) – The North American International Auto Show is cool long before you get in the official door.

Having one of the original DeLorean time machines from the “Back To The Future” movies around ensures that.

The DeLorean, complete with flux capacitor, fluxing, is at a booth in the Cobo outer hallway put up by Covisint Corp., the secure collaboration technology provider spun out of Detroit’s Compuware Corp. last year. What are they trying to say? The future is here, of course. Covisint is demonstrating how Hyundai will be using Google Glass, Google’s eyeglass-style wearable computer, to provide vehicle information to owners, as well as how other auto companies are using Covisint technology to personalize the car buying process.

Then there was some very cool student automotive technology being shown by a nonprofit that’s new to me: the Square One Education Network. It’s a successor to the Convergence Foundation, and had to rename itself after SAE bought the Convergence auto tech show.

Square One runs several very cool technology competitions for high school students, two of which are on display in the Cobo outer hallway.

Karl Klimek, Square One’s “executive orchestrator,” walked me through the full-scale Innovative Vehicle Design competition, with an electric dune buggy designed and built at Southfield High School that features a spoiler on the back that generates electricity through its vibrations. There’s also an autonomous Barbie jeep designed by Waterford Kettering High School. (Square One also runs a very cool underwater robotics competition, but it’s a little cold this time of year to show that off in the Detroit River outside Cobo.)

For more information on how a high school near you can get involved in Square One, check out http://www.squareonenetwork.org. A lot of these cars will be competing at Michigan International Speedway near Jackson on May 3, and boy would that be a cool thing to attend.

Also checking out the Square One cars in Automation Alley’s booth was Kevin Kerrigan, a new automotive vice president for the Michigan Economic Development Corp. Gov. Rick Snyder announced a new automotive office for the MEDC a year ago, and Kerrigan’s one of the folks hired to help the MEDC make more of the Michigan auto industry.

I also had a really interesting conversation with Angel Gambino, a Macomb County native who’s now general manager of the Smart Mobility division of Castrol InnoVentures, a transportation tech investment arm of the motor oil giant.

What’s a motor oil company doing investing in smart transportation technology? Gambino said that a future with more electric vehicles and flexible mobility systems like renting cars by the hour means a future where there’s less motor oil consumption — so Castrol sees the need to diversify and invest in smart transportation technologies.

One early investment is Zubie, a company based in Charleston, S.C. that has a wireless device that plugs into the inspection port of cars built after 1997 and turns them into smart vehicles. The device communicates with a smartphone app that can display vehicle diagnostics or other information. Castrol was part of a group that invested $10 million in Zubie.

Castrol also invested recently in the transportation tech startups Peloton and GreenSteam. Peloton, named after the mass of bicycle racers in events like the Tour de France, is working on technology to allow trucks to connect wirelessly with automatic braking and form an aerodynamic platoon, following each other much more closely than would be allowed with conventional, manual braking. GreenSteam, working on energy efficiency technologies for commercial ships, received $2 million fro Castrol InnoVentures.

“We want to create businesses that anticipate changing needs and develop products and services to meet those customer needs,” Gambino said.

Gambino’s also involved in creating new web and physical business locations for Castrol, which has been disintermediated from direct contact with many automotive consumers by the rise of the fast oil change shop. Those locations could be in auto dealerships or other locations.

Gambino said she’s meeting with potential innovation partners while visiting the auto show. More at http://www.castrolinnoventures.com.

Gambino joined Castrol six months ago after running an innovation agency with offices in the United Kingdom and South America. She’s based in the U.K., but still has a house in Grosse Pointe and runs an urban building redevelopment agency in Corktown. She’s bought and is redeveloping a building at 2051 Rosa Parks Boulevard as artist and incubator space.

Other highlights from the auto show:

* Parking downtown was an absolute freaking nightmare, with jammed streets and FULL signs on all the parking garages anywhere near Cobo Center before 9 a.m. I went over to the Renaissance Center, figuring to park in one of the garages there and take the People Mover over — but the Beaubien Place garage at 521 E. Atwater was still selling tickets to a garage that was full, and then demanding that we still pay $2.50 for the right to leave after driving around the garage looking in vain for a parking spot for 20 minutes. Not cool. Eventually an exasperated security guard told us to park in a reserved spot. I did, and didn’t get towed, so yay, but still, what a mess.

* Faurecia, the French auto supplier with major operations in Michigan, has a huge display in the ballroom of the Crowne Plaza Hotel downtown (formerly known as the Pontchartrain). I checked out a couple of very cook vehicle interiors. One, called the Oasis, is intended as the rear seat of a luxury vehicle driven by a chauffeur. The seat adjusts to several positions, from business mode to entertainment mode to relaxation mode, and features personalized sound and customized support, bolstering and massage. Then there was the Performance interior intended for the “value” vehicle segment between entry level and luxury, with some very cool popup flat screens for vehicle displays, wireless charging, and customization for individual drivers depending on settings they enter on their smartphones. The interior also featured really cool natural fiber and wood grain materials. Finally, Faurecia is showing off an active noise cancellation and addition system for exhaust systems caled Exhaust Dynamic Sound Technologies. Believe it or not, they’re planning to add a speaker to the exhaust system and mix its sounds into the exhaust pipe to make a vehicle’s exhaust sounds cooler. Eventually, you may be able to pay for an “exhaust tone” like you pay for a mobile phone ringtone today, so you can make the exhaust of your Focus sound like a Ferrari.

* There’s a WAY bigger exhibit this year from Smart, the makers of those tiny little two-seaters powered by a 1-liter engine. I drove one of those right after they came out a few years back — drove one up and down Woodward Avenue during the Dream Cruise, in fact. I can only pray they’ve improved the noise and harsh ride since then. They are still cute as ever to look at, though.

* Honda is still building some of the coolest and most futuristic looking concept cars. Their FCEV electric concept is absolutely drop-dead gorgeous.

* I seriously want the Ford Focus ST, the proverbial pocket rocket for $27,000 that’s rated at 23 mpg city, 32 highway.

* It is absolutely unbelievable the power they’re getting out of these tiny little engines these days. I saw a Chevy engine that somehow wrings 140 hp out of 1.4 liters of combustion space. Incredible.

* Since when is Hyundai building $40,000 V8 luxoboats? Boy, has that company come a long way from its late-’80s rattletraps.

* Volkswagen’s display is tied with Nissan and Ford for the Most Likely To Lift Off for Alpha Centauri award.

* Booth babes are back with a vengeance. What is this, CES? Drop dead gorgeous women in ridiculous six inch heels at every exhibit. Best of all, they can all talk car tech with you.

* There’s free WiFi at Cobo Center, but the poky speeds involved will take you right back to 1998. How slow? Try 295 milliseconds ping. And a download of a blistering 0.26 megabits per second. And after that, Speedtest.net crapped out. Well, I guess that’s OK, 1998 was a pretty cool year.

* I know nobody cares but those of us in the media, but this is the second year the NAIAS Michelin Media Center has been in much more spacious quarters in the Cobo basement (oh, all right, “Michigan Hall”). And boy, is it ever bigger and nicer than it used to be. The free lunches were a huge upgrade, too — a really good chicken artichoke penne pasta dish Monday and an even better chicken pot pie Tuesday. I want the recipe for that chicken pot pie, although I bet it was so good because it contained approximately 30,000 grams of salt per serving.

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