CU-ICAR: Bringing Automotive Innovation to the Upstate

It's been nearly 20 years since BMW opened its first and only North American manufacturing facility in the Upstate, and since then the automotive sector in the upstate went from statistically insignificant to absolutely booming, with over $3 billion and more than 7,000 jobs created so far.

With that kind of investment and energy, it was only natural that Clemson University would choose to open its International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR) just a few exits down I-85 from the now iconic BMW facility, cementing the Upstate's status as a global leader in the automotive industry.

Opening its doors in 2007, CU-ICAR is an advanced technology campus focused on automotive research and innovation, housing the first and only Ph.D. program in automotive engineering in the nation and providing Clemson University graduate students with an opportunity to earn their advanced degrees in an area teeming with potential employers.

In fact, when CU-ICAR awarded its first automotive engineering Ph.D. in 2009 to John Limroth, he went immediately into a job with Michelin as a tire-performance research engineer. Limroth moved to Greenville with his family in 2006 specifically to pursue the degree.

Since Limroth's graduation, CU-ICAR has graduated another 108 students from its M.S. and Ph.D. programs, and currently there are 189 students enrolled in the school, focusing on areas like advanced vehicle powertrains, vehicular electronics, and manufacturing and materials.

Perhaps the most innovative program for students at CU-ICAR is called "Deep Orange." Developed by CU-ICAR professor Dr. Paul Venhovens, Deep Orange allows students to collaborate with faculty and partners in the automotive industry to engineer and build a new prototype vehicle each year. The goal is to give students experience in vehicle design, development, prototyping and production planning from their entry into the program until graduation.

Taking years to complete, each prototype is different, and is designed with a new industry partner, meaning that students tackle new challenges and learn to innovate in new ways. Last year, students completed "Deep Orange 3," a hybrid mainstream six-seater sports car concept targeted at Generation Y buyers, and built in partnership with Mazda. The concept was shown at the 2012 Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) show in October.

This year, Deep Orange concept is based on a BMW X3 and is meant to be a performance oriented SUV. BMW, Drive Automotive Industries, Spartanburg Steel Products Inc, and Gestamp South Carolina LLC have all provided sponsorship of the program.

It's partnerships like Deep Orange that make CU-ICAR more than just a graduate school. With a total of $250 million in public and private investment, and 770 jobs created on-site between the graduate school and its 18 partners scattered around its 250 acre campus, CU-ICAR excels at creating synergistic relationships between its students and automotive industry leaders.

That kind of innovation in both education and research is just the beginning for CU-ICAR. A sixth building, One Research Drive is planned. Once completed, the four story building will house laboratory space for the automotive engineering program and will have multiple tenant spaces for future automotive industry partners. And that's just the start.

The CU-ICAR Master Plan also calls for an additional four technology "neighborhoods" surrounding the current campus (called "Neighborhood I"), with each designed around a different automotive theme, allowing the center to continue its growth into a worldwide hub for automotive research, and a beacon announcing the Upstate's prominent position in the global automotive industry.

Christopher George is a freelance writer and multimedia professional from Spartanburg. He is a former editor and publisher of the Spartanburg Spark, and his writing and video work has appeared in numerous online and print publications including Mountain Xpress in Asheville, NC and in titles by the Hub City Writers Project.