Crain News Service
DETROIT - When the U.S. Army needed low-cost night-vision technology so soldiers could track missile hits, it went to Detroit.
It went back for antilock braking systems, lightweight trucks and inflatable restraints, all products that auto suppliers and automakers were working on for consumer use before the military inquired.
The military speeded development of the technologies, while cutting automaker costs, through the National Automotive Center. The military division, based in Warren, Mich., displayed those products and others at this month's SAE International Congress and Exposition.
'There is a real important association between us and the carmakers,' said Maj. Gen. Roy Beauchamp, commander of the Tank-automotive and Armaments Command, which oversees the automotive center. 'A lot of people don't understand that we can share technology with the commercial vehicles and keep our costs down.'
Each year, the National Automotive Center spends about $45 million working with suppliers and automakers to develop products that have joint military and consumer use. The center offers grants to automakers such as General Motors and Ford Motor Co., along with suppliers such as Detroit Diesel Corp. and Continental Teves Inc. in Auburn Hills, Mich., which includes the former brake and chassis division of ITT Automotive.
One of the National Automotive Center's most recent private-public ventures was night-vision technology. The U.S. Department of Defense and Texas Instruments (now Raytheon) put in $10 million apiece to research and develop a low-cost night-vision product.
'We needed a miniature, low-cost version for our missiles because, well, they explode, and we don't want to spend more than we have to for something that will get destroyed,' said Dennis Wend, director of the center.
Previously, the night-vision product used by the military cost about $8,000 a vehicle. The newer technology is less than $1,000 a vehicle, the same price at which the automakers get it from the suppliers. The military uses it so soldiers in trucks can track where a missile lands.