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That 'Jetsons' car may not be far off

4:14 AM, Aug 19, 2013   |    comments
Dreaming of a Jetsons car? A former car assembly plant is now a workshop for teams of auto industry entrepreneurs. (Photo: Hanna-Barbera Productions)
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Google's self-driving car and Elon Musk's electric Tesla might get the most headlines, but a new program in rural Tennessee is proving there can be automotive industry innovators anywhere.

Tucked in the middle of the state, in a town called Spring Hill and a plant once occupied by now-defunct Saturn, is a new start-up accelerator called AutoXLR8R. All summer long, 10 teams of entrepreneurs have been at work building businesses around technologies that improve vehicular safety, emissions or energy-efficiency.

One eliminates the need to plug in an electric vehicle. Another helps make it possible for the average person to ride in a self-driving car.

These men and women might not be located in innovation labs at General Motors or Ford, but they aren't designing vehicle cupholders in their basements, either. They are Ph.D. candidates, Forbes 30 Under 30 award winners and researchers at some of the top automotive innovation and engineering labs in the nation. They're inventing materials and technologies that could be used in the next generation of cars, trucks and buses, and in other industries, too.

With time spent in Tennessee, where the automotive industry makes up 25% of the economy, they've interacted with state-based executives and engineers from General Motors, Nissan, Volkswagen, AutoZone and Eastman Chemical. If they stay, they'll have access to funding, too - $250 million allocated by the state for investments in early-stage companies.

"It's just the right time," said Tom Brewer, president of the Tennessee Automotive Manufacturers Association. "There is nothing hotter in the U.S., or even the world, than automotive. It's what got us out of the recession."

Brewer might be biased in that assessment, but his argument is that vehicles are ready for Jetsons-like technology that many of us didn't think possible in our lifetimes.

For example, an AutoXLR8R company called Orzata has developed computer-imaging software that reads video and images from cameras and interprets them for a machine or vehicle to understand. Such technology could help a self-driving car know when to stop and go at an intersection, and avoid a crash.

To eliminate a barrier to buying an electric vehicle, Green Dot Charging of California created a device that automatically charges the car when it's sitting in a garage, and in a fraction of the time as today's chargers. Founder Satyajit Patwardhan hopes to work with the manufacturers he met through the accelerator to offer the charger as an add-on with an electric vehicle purchase.

Graphenics is determining how to incorporate into vehicles a Nobel Prize-winning material called Graphene that is 200 times stronger than steel but lighter than a feather, and what CEO Michael Weber called in a pitch to investors, "the best conductor of heat in the universe."

Nearly 250 companies applied to the inaugural program after its leadership team promoted it at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit and visited a handful of top automotive research institutions.

Mike Nichols, the director and co-founder of a St. Louis automotive software start-up called RollSale, then designed a curriculum to teach entrepreneurs how to build a business around a product. They also learn how to design, prototype and test that product at the speed of a tech start-up to make it more appealing to investors.

A machine shop and advanced technology community college program that operates in the same facility as AutoXLR8R proved beneficial for the start-ups, too. Patwardhan said he could work on the technical aspects of Green Dot while also learning how to build a business around it. Others charged the students with helping to develop their products.

Though venture capital investors have been interested in the program, Nichols said, the outcome for many of these companies could be co-development or licensing agreements with auto manufacturers. General Motors and Orzata, for example, are already working to deploy imaging software to read product labels in an assembly line. Several other confidential partnerships are underway, too, Nichols said.

"There is much higher acceptance in large corporations now than ever before that you can build a box and fill it up with a lot of smart ideas, but you can't control where great ideas are happening elsewhere in the world," he said.

The team is busy planning a 2014 program, and is considering AutoXLR8Rs in other regions. Brewer is hoping the next set of companies can figure out how to get all the disparate technologies working together to create a truly smart car, whether self-driving or not.

"That's the next moon shot," he said. "I get excited, because there is so much possibility, and we're so close. We just have to take it a step further."

Laura Baverman, USA TODAY

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