TRAVERSE CITY, MI – A stunning transformation is under way as auto makers speed up efforts aimed at improving fuel economy and safety, says Jay Baron, president and CEO of the Center for Automotive Research.

He speaks of those accelerated efforts as he opens the center’s 4-day Management Briefing Seminars gathering here.

In the past, auto makers moved at a relatively easy pace as they made fuel-economy improvements, Baron says. They paid attention to such things, but didn’t fixate on them.

That has changed since the federal government set ambitious fuel-economy goals.

“Now, there is a major transformational phase,” Baron says, noting that the government wants auto makers to achieve an average of 54.5 mpg (4.3 L/100 km) by 2025.

An “automotive shock” has occurred as the industry scrambles to hit that target, as well as tries to meet greater safety goals, he says.

The auto industry has been reluctant to make great innovative leaps. It prefers to move incrementally, lest moving too quickly with game-changing technology lead to disastrous results, Baron says.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. has a lofty goal of ultimately eliminating vehicular fatalities.

Baron once thought that was wishful thinking. Today, he declares so-called zero fatalities as not so far-fetched considering major safety advances of late, such as collision-avoidance and driver-assist systems on more and more vehicles.

Speaking at a session on manufacturing, he says a poll indicates only 52% of young people considering automotive careers think of production as a significant part of the auto industry.

“We need to play a role in educating people on the importance of manufacturing,” he says. “Germany does a good job doing that.”

Manufacturing can be a tricky endeavor, because new launches are replete with imponderables. It is rare for a plant’s vehicle launch to go perfectly, Baron says. “If someone says a launch is going smoothly, it’s their first launch.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com