Dennis Wend is from the government, and he really does want to help the auto industry.
Wend is director of the U.S. Army's National Automotive Center in Warren, Mich., part of the Army's Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command.
Last year, the National Automotive Center wrote checks totaling $80 million to automakers and suppliers to develop new technology.
The catch? Companies that take Uncle Sam's money must agree to engineer their products to meet the military's specifications.
The guiding philosophy is to make the best use of taxpayers' money, Wend says. He cites the example of the military working with Continental Teves N.A. to develop antilock brakes for the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, commonly known as the Humvee and sold to the public as the Hummer.
Working with Continental Teves kept the cost of the ABS at about $500 per vehicle compared with $2,500 per vehicle from a military contractor, Wend says.
Wend's biggest challenge, he says, is getting engineers at automakers and suppliers to even think of working with the military.
So the National Automotive Center has invested in exhibit space at the SAE World Congress to display a high-tech concept vehicle, dubbed the SmarTruck, which rides on commercial vehicle underpinnings.
'Over the last three years, we've found that the SAE show is the best forum to get the word out,' Wend says.
'It's the target audience we want to work with.'
The National Automotive Center has about 1,200 engineers and scientists working on research and development projects, Wend notes.
About 25 percent of those people are SAE members or participating on committees.
The specifications for the SmarTruck make it as suitable for spy movie duty as military use. The list includes the requisite smoke screen and oil slick generators.
There also is a bevy of electronics, including flat-panel display screens and global positioning satellite navigation systems. The icing on the cake includes electrified door handles to repel attackers, and a retractable laser rifle that could be used for clearing minefields.
Some other technologies on the concept, such as bulletproof windows and body panels, and pepper gas dispensers, already are available on high-security vehicles commonly used in foreign countries. Technologies such as Night Vision, developed by the military, have been converted to civilian use on the Cadillac DeVille.
Companies working with the military to develop the concept include Parametric Technologies Corp., MSX Corp., Integrated Concept and Research Corp. and Ford Motor Co.
Underneath the SmarTruck's exterior rides the chassis and powertrain of a Ford Super Duty F-350 pickup. Basing the SmarTruck on a production vehicle dovetails with the military's Commercially Based Tactical Truck program. The goal of COMBATT, started in 1998, is to save the military money on its next-generation medium-duty vehicle by using mass-produced vehicles and components, taking advantage of the auto industry's economies of scale.
Using a commercially produced pickup makes more sense as the military's role evolves into more frequent use in peacekeeping and anti-terrorism roles, Wend says.
Such a vehicle blends into populated areas better than the potent but conspicuous Humvee.
The COMBATT pickups are expected to carry a few more creature comforts, such as air conditioning, than the Humvee and won't make as many packing compromises. The Humvee's engine compartment is in the middle of the vehicle, which helps protect it from weapons attacks but dramatically limits interior room.
The COMBATT program has reached the point where the military will soon need to decide which vehicles to buy, Wend says. At the 2000 SAE World Congress, both Ford and DaimlerChrysler displayed prototypes of pickups they proposed for the program.
'The goal is that we would be building in military requirements into a severe service truck,' Wend says. 'We would like it if we could build 80 percent of our requirements into the vehicle on the assembly line and just upfit the other 20 percent to meet our needs, rather than having to purpose-build the entire vehicle.' Wend says one of his challenges in making the National Automotive Center work is getting the automakers and suppliers comfortable working with the military.
'The biggest area of concern was in intellectual property,' Wend says. 'We said that we don't want it, since they always invest more in projects than I do. But I get the OEM price for the product no matter what quantity I buy. That's good for the taxpayers.'
Working with the auto industry has helped the military in other ways.'When we started working in the industry, we found that a lot of our requirements were outdated; found that there are newer materials available,' Wend says. 'Today we look for more reliability and ruggedness.'
In the last two years, Wend adds, 'We've turned the corner and have come to find that a lot of the technology the auto industry is doing is the same technology we want.'
Dale Jewett is industry editor of Automotive News