7 Southern universities form automotive research alliance

Published 6:34 pm Thursday, May 17, 2007

In an initiative hitched to auto companies growing fond of the South, seven universities in the region joined Wednesday to form an automotive research alliance.

The seven universities — Tennessee, Auburn, Clemson, Mississippi State, Alabama, Alabama-Birmingham and Kentucky — are all in states with automotive manufacturing plants and suppliers.

The alliance was organized by the National Transportation Research Center, Inc., along with Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Tennessee Valley Authority, to be a resource for the industry and for the region to compete for research jobs.

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Ben Ritchey, acting president of the research center located between Knoxville and Oak Ridge, said initial funding would come from Oak Ridge. He said there are plans to hire an alliance director, likely someone recently retired from the industry.

Ritchey and representatives of the organizers and universities signed an agreement Wednesday between a meeting of the Tennessee Automotive Manufacturers Association and an automotive manufacturing conference sponsored by Automotive News.

Ritchey said the alliance goals include acting as a source of information on research and technology resources in the region and helping to link industry, researchers and funding organizations interested in automotive issues.

Dana Christensen, associate director for energy and engineering sciences at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said about $100 million annually of the lab’s research budget “could be attributed to transportation related activities.”

Laboratories under the NTRC already conduct research on composite materials, fuels, engines, emission controls, road materials, and trucking safety.

Fred D. Tompkins, president of the University of Tennessee Research Foundation and associate vice president for research, said the university plans to open a center focused on “automotive supply chain issues.”

Tompkins said one goal of that center would be linking top graduates of all the participating universities with automotive employers.

Larry Holloway, director of the University of Kentucky Center for Manufacturing, said that university plans to start a center in “automotive advanced manufacturing.”

Kirk H. Schulz, vice president for research and economic development at Mississippi State, said in a statement that the “expansion of the worldwide auto industry into the Southeast is an unprecedented opportunity for Southern research institutions like Mississippi State to create a technologically savvy work force attuned to this industry.”

On The Net:

Automotive Research Alliance: www.autoresearchalliance.com