Mechatronics and the Future of the Auto Industry
By Todd Dills
(This article originally appeared in UAB Magazine.)
Alabama has become an unlikely leader in the automotive industry, with manufacturing plants from Mercedes, Honda, and Hyundai producing the latest SUVs, minivans, and sedans. Meanwhile, at the UAB School of Engineering, Vladimir Vantsevich, Ph.D., Sc.D., and his students are working on the next generation of vehicles.
Vantsevich is the leading specialist worldwide in the dynamics, energy efficiency, and mobility of both conventional and unmanned multi-wheel drive vehicles. His work is based in an engineering discipline called mechatronics, a combination of electronic and mechanical systems that he describes as “a technology, a philosophy, and a science” all rolled into one. The automotive industry is a primary adopter of mechatronic systems, Vantsevich explains. Electronically controlled braking systems are one example; another is adaptive cruise control, which deploys radar and electronic controls to automatically adjust vehicle speed in order to maintain a safe following distance.
But these high-tech devices come at a cost. “The average car today has about two kilometers of wires” inside and may have up to five computers, Vantsevich says. That adds more than 60 pounds, “and you have to burn more fuel to carry that weight.”
Vantsevich, who holds 30 certified inventions, believes there is great opportunity for engineers who can find new ways to redesign vehicles for the mechatronics era. He is particularly interested in using mechatronics to enhance the safety and efficiency of vehicles, from cars to construction equipment and farm machinery. He also actively works on “green tires” that electronically control power distribution to the wheels to provide fuel savings. In the future, embedded sensors in tires will communicate with the rest of the vehicle’s components and systems, further improving efficiency and mobility, Vantsevich says.
UAB students get hands-on instruction in mechatronics in the new Vehicle and Robotics Engineering Laboratory, which Vantsevich founded after joining UAB in June 2012 from Michigan’s Lawrence Technical University. The lab “fosters multidisciplinary learning through postgraduate, graduate, and undergraduate student research, and through work on contract projects with industry,” Vantsevich says. He has also launched new undergraduate and graduate academic tracks in the Department of Mechanical Engineering for the study and research of mechatronics and its vehicle and robotics applications, including an undergraduate course in Design of Hybrid Electric Vehicles as a partnership with Southern Company. Vantsevich’s goal is “to build a world-class mechatronics program at UAB,” he says.
In September 2013, Vantsevich organized the first Agile Ground Vehicle Dynamics, Energy Efficiency, and Performance in Severe Environments International Engineering Symposium at UAB. The symposium attracted 15 world-class experts to discuss novel directions in ground vehicle dynamics; the 106 attendees represented eight countries, 18 universities, and 17 companies, including Honda, Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, Volvo, and John Deere. This brought students a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” by giving them access to academic and industrial leaders from around the world, Vantsevich says.
“Alabama is becoming very well known as an automotive state,” he adds. “We need more events here related to vehicle engineering. This is the very first international forum to bring experts here to discuss emerging technologies in vehicle dynamics. It’s a good sign for local companies that we have the background and capabilities at UAB. It will also attract more people from all around the world to work with local companies.”