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from a report on the Car Connection

The official dedication of theHybrid Development Center in Troy, Mich., seemed a relatively low-key affair last week, despite the unprecedented joining of three car companies in the tech-sharing group. A handful of local politicians mugged for the local television cameras, but no top executives from General Motors, DaimlerChrysler, or BMW AG were on hand.

GM chairman and chief executive officer Richard Wagoner praised the venture last week and held it out as an example of the kind of collaboration he had hoped to achieve with Renault/Nissan even as GM decided against a more complex relationship with those companies.

GM is only about a year from launching the two mode-hybrid products, GM officials confirmed last week. DaimlerChrysler AG isn't far behind and BMW engineers at the center showed an X5 that is being used to test its hybrid system. BMW engineers, however, declined to say if a hybrid X5 was nearing production.

Engineers from all three companies, described as "the best of best," are working together on the core technologies that will be used by all three companies. They include such pieces and parts as electric motors, high-performance electronics, wiring and safety systems, and battery utilization systems and controls. The three automakers have combined to invest more than $300 million in the effort, an investment divided equally among all three companies.

Speeding up hybrids

Andreas Truckenbrodt, the ranking DaimlerChrysler executive assigned to the project, noted that the center offers all three companies an opportunity to spread the cost burden.

"We all have significant hybrid experience," he said. By sharing expertise and experience, the engineers assigned to the project have helped speed up the development of the shared systems. "It's much faster," Truckenbrodt said.

The two-mode system will be used in front-and rear-wheel-drive passenger cars and trucks. The companies involved say their technology leapfrogs current hybrids since it saves fuel not only in city driving but also on the highway.

Truckenbrodt also said the joint effort is being watched carefully by the rest of the industry because if it is successful, it will serve as the prototype for collaboration among automakers on other sophisticated products in the future.

The hybrid collaboration began in early 2005 when GM and DaimlerChrysler were the first two companies to commit to the venture. BMW announced it was joining forces with its two competitors in the fall of 2005. BMW engineers assigned to the project, about 100 in all, began arriving in Detroit last winter, said BMW spokesman Andreas Klugenscheid.

Dave Cole, of the Center For Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, said collaborations, particularly partnerships focused on specific projects, are the wave of the future in the auto industry, which is under pressure to develop vehicles that offer better fuel economy with virtually no emissions.

"The customer doesn't care where the oil pump in his transmission is developed," Truckenbrodt said. Thus, sharing the burden of parts that the customer never sees makes a lot of sense, he added.

Sharing the floor

The 150,000-square-foot development center is divided into four parts, he added. Each of the three partners uses one; the fourth is where engineers from all three companies work together and is by far the largest, Truckenbrodt said.

"An engineer from BMW can turn around and ask somebody from DaimlerChrysler or GM a question," he said. The common development is supported by separate initiatives designed to integrate the hybrid technology in each company's product line. For example, the 100 engineers from BMW are closely tied to the company's research and development center in Munich, Klugenscheid said.

Klugenscheid also emphasized the center is unique. "Three companies with diverse corporate cultures, with different cultural backgrounds and from different systems have combined," he said.

Tom Stephens, the GM executive responsible for GM Powertrain Group, has said the company's hybrid will be compact and flexible enough to fit in a number of different vehicles. The new two-mode full-hybrid will appear first in GM's big sport-utility vehicles such as the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon, Stephens said.

DaimlerChrysler spokesman Nick Cappa said the Chrysler Group plans to use the hybrid system under development in Troy in the Dodge Durango, starting in 2008. DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes-Benz and commercial vehicle groups also are planning to use the technology, Cappa said.

BMW hasn't specifically said which vehicle will use the system, but the company has made a significant investment in the project, which underscores just how important hybrids are, Klugenscheid said.

Truckenbrodt said that each of the companies has retained the ability to prepare very distinct vehicles that fit the character of their special brands despite the joint development effort. However, no part of the development of the common parts can proceed without consensus among the three partners, he said.

"The benefits of that complexity far outweigh the burdens of trying to go it alone," he said.

"We definitely are seeing the culture of all three companies. I don't know if we're creating a new culture. It's more important to respect the individual culture and draw out the best," said Truckenbrodt, who headed up DaimlerChrysler fuel-cell development in Germany before coming to Troy to serve as one of the three executive directors for the hybrid development center.
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