Many Hoosiers are familiar with Indiana’s heritage in the automotive industry in launching some of the most famous names in history like Auburn, Cord, Duesenberg, Studebaker, and Stutz. It is also well known that at the turn of the 20th century, Hoosier innovators risked their careers, finances, and reputations in creating the largest racing venue the world had ever seen: Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Indiana was an incubator of innovation in advanced transportation. And now, our state is seeing a recent resurgence in transportation innovation, which, if embraced, can lead us to the forefront of this dynamic field once again.
But first, imagine life in the first decade of the 1900s: humans driving cars for the first time, humans flying airplanes for the first time, humans racing vehicles at speeds never imagined. The rate at which new innovations were arriving was incredible. This all coincided with another little invention called “electricity.”
Innovators from Benjamin Franklin to Edison to Tesla have dabbled in harnessing the electron, but only one person is credited with integrating electricity with the automotive internal combustion engine – a technology that later expanded its roots in Indiana: his name, Charles F. Kettering. Kettering is attributed with putting the first electric ignition system (prototype) and battery on a Cadillac engine in 1910. Months later, Cadillac placed an order for 12,000 auto-cranking units to be the first ignition, motor (alternator), and battery system solution in the history of mankind.
Kettering started a small company called Dayton Engineering Laboratory Company, or DELCO, in Ohio, but it wasn’t long before he ventured over to Indiana and acquired a small company in Anderson called Remy Brothers. Delco Remy would eventually become the world’s largest supplier of electrical starters, batteries, ignition systems, alternators, wiring harnesses, horns, and practically any part responsible for cranking, idling, and accelerating an internal combustion engine. DELCO would also acquire a little radio company out of Kokomo, which soon became Delco Radio, then Delco Electronics, and eventually Delphi, which has become one of the most prolific suppliers of electronics in automotive history.
This amazing Hoosier heritage and entrepreneurial spirit paved the way for leadership in vehicle electrification technology, and a unique ability to harness the electron for great benefits to society. Jumping 80 years into the future to the mid-1990s, Delco Remy, Delco Electronics, and Allison Transmission developed the battery, electric motor, and power electronics for the world’s first high-volume electric car, General Motor’s (GM) EV1 – directly out of an unlabeled office park in Castleton, Ind. From this “skunk works” environment also came the Electric S-10, and the GM-Allison Hybrid Bus (even Tesla Motors has “roots” here).
But after this tremendous century-long heritage in innovation and vehicle electrification, how does the transportation industry – and Indiana – move into the future?
It all comes down to a push for increased efficiency: more efficient drive systems with better motors and batteries providing higher performing, quiet, highly efficient, “smart” solutions, all resulting in a transformational reduction of parts, noise, pollution, maintenance, and expense for consumers.
Already, advanced safety systems, artificial intelligence, and autonomous driving capabilities are dawning – all created by greater utilization of the electron. Kettering may never have envisioned how these technological advances and efficiencies could bring a passion for transportation innovation to Indiana’s doorstep – again.
Fortunately, our state’s legacy in innovation does not reside solely on our past. This resurgence in redefining transportation has already arrived in Indiana. We are currently experiencing “first-of-its-kind” progress in Central Indiana:
The public launch earlier this year of BlueIndy, the largest all-electric car sharing program in the U.S.
IndyGo’s efforts to bring electric buses and plan for a fully electric Rapid Bus Transit (eBRT) line.
Indianapolis’ decision to transition its municipal fleet to plug-in vehicles.
Research in battery technologies, alternative fuels, renewable energy technologies, and the like, being fervently pursued by our academic institutions.
Launching a globally unique Battery Innovation Center in south-central Indiana, allowing for full-spectrum testing, validation and evaluation of energy storage technologies.
All this activity does more for Indiana than give us a few headlines. While the pure economic development benefits are significant, creating efficient technologies and system solutions means reducing cancer-causing pollution in our own backyard – offering major positive impacts to our communities’ quality of life, our personal health, security, and the economy.
Today in Indiana, it looks like history could be repeating the early 1900s all over again, and its Indiana’s innovation race to win.
John E. Waters has been developing sustainable “engineered” solutions since his early work on the first electric car, GM’s EV1. John was the inventor for the battery pack for the EV1, Electric S-10, and multiple electric drive platforms spanning from commercial buses to race cars to golf carts.