DETROIT – In the 1970s, when the total value of electronics on a car equaled about $20, visionaries spoke of automated highways, radar-activated automatic braking systems and solving myriad regulatory and environmental issues with silicon and software.

At the same time, skeptics worried about reliability, product liability and cost.

On the 30th anniversary of the first Convergence conference, members of Monday’s Blue Ribbon Panel outlined the enormous strides the industry has taken during the past three decades.

The panel acknowledged that although technology has advanced, many of the old problems persist and some of the most ambitious goals stubbornly remain on the horizon.

In separate presentations, panelists Trevor O. Jones, CEO of Biomec Inc. and

founder of Convergence; Metaldyne Chairman Timothy D. Leuliette; Francois J. Castaing, president-Castaing & Associates; and Bernard I. Robertson, retired Chrysler Group senior vice president, took a decade of Convergence history and reviewed the ups and downs.

The discussion ranged from its humble beginnings in 1974, with 300 attendees (and only two electronic parts on a car), to the heady days of 2000, when there were 9,000 attendees and it was predicted cars would soon become electronic “Java browsers on wheels,” to today’s optimistic but more realistic era.

In a lively presentation that challenged and entertained his fellow panelists and the audience, Bran Ferren, co-chairman and chief creative officer of Applied Minds Inc. – the only non-automotive panelist – warned engineers not to lose their energy or vision.

But he added that the U.S.’s declining education system could derail their goals by producing a generation of sub-standard engineers and uneducated consumers.

Ferren spoke about the possibility of having telematics systems in cars that update electronic mapping systems with the location of every pothole they hit, so local road crews can be dispatched to make a fix.

But then he cautioned if science and math curriculums aren’t improved, “you won’t have anybody but dummies to engineer your car.”

An avowed auto enthusiast, Ferren also chides the industry for unilaterally accepting for automotive use awkward human-machine interfaces developed by the computer industry for desktop computers.

Even as he marveled at the engineering of his Range Rover, he complained that its electronic navigation system is “an embarrassment” because it’s so unfriendly to users, and drivers cannot even read the screen while wearing sunglasses.

For long-time attendees, each presentation was a bittersweet recap of events, innovations, triumphs and disappointments.

Jones said during the 1970s sessions discussed gas-electric hybrid powertrains, collision avoidance systems and other advanced topics. But it also was the era when seatbelt interlocks were promulgated and then outlawed during the same year.

Leuliette described the 1980s as the decade where the industry decided, “superior world vehicles would be the result of electronics,” fuel-injection systems replaced carburetors and antilock brake systems entered the mainstream. However, he also pointed out it was a time when the proliferation of electronic sensors – and sensor problems – led to big warranty costs for auto makers.

Castaing described the 1990s as the time side airbags and electronic stability control began improving vehicle safety; digital engineering began dramatically cutting product development costs; and new college curriculums in the discipline of “mechatronics” began evolving, along with the hype of vehicles becoming electronics platforms on wheels.

Robertson described the current decade as one that started very upbeat and then grew over-optimistic about electronics applications and consumer interest in various technologies, from telematics to 42-volt electrical architectures to controversial machine-user interfaces such as BMW AG’s iDrive.

However, by 2002, industry leaders were having frank discussions about reliability, warranty costs and questioning “the perceived inevitability of the inexorable growth of silicon” in vehicles, Robertson says.

dwinter@primediabusiness.com