On a related auto note, the battery manufacturers are forming consortia — National Alliance for Advanced Transportation Battery Cell Manufacture — to develop technology to electric cars. According to the Wall Street Journal:
The consortium is modeled on Sematech, the group formed by U.S. computer-chip companies in 1987 to compete with the Japanese. Sematech, based in Austin, Texas, is credited with helping U.S. companies regain their footing by focusing on manufacturing and design advancements with funding from the federal government. “We think Sematech was one of the best examples of government intervention in industry,” said Jim Greenberger, a Chicago attorney at Reed Smith LLP, who is working with the battery consortium.
While I support such consortia and wish the new group all the best, I would caution against too over optimism that this is the solution to the problems. I have some background in both electric cars and Sematech. Back in the early 1980’s, I was involved in a study of the potential of electric vehicles (that study help put me through my Ph.D. program) – and I was licensed to drive the Detroit Edison’s electric cars. The problem back then was batteries – and 25 years later it appears that it is still batteries.
On Sematech, I was involved in the crafting of the legislation creating the group. Originally, Sematech was meant to confront the Japanese memory chip challenge. By the mid-1990’s Sematech stopped being a US competitiveness institution and became an international research organization for the industry – including the non-US industry. Sematech made that decision for very sound business reasons. The industry also felt that it had reached to point that the US industry has stabilized. But the industry was now irrevocably internationalized with no thought that the US could necessarily regain the competitive lead.
The other point on Sematech is that it worked because of Bob Noyce. As one of the inventors of the computer chip, Bob has the eminence in the industry to pull this off. Without someone of Bob’s stature, Sematech could have easily become a failed irrelevancy, as some consortia are. Bob forced the industry to take the effort seriously and to contribute not only funds, but top talent and executive attention.
So I wish the battery consortia well. I would urge two points however. One, find someone who is committed and who has the stature to drive the group to success. Two, be very clear in your goals. Is it a mechanism to advanced research on batteries, manufacturing technology or something else? Is it a means to strengthen the electric car industry – or to help the US manufactures compete – or to keep production in the US? There is enough difference among those goals to cause the effort to fail if it tries to be all things to all people.