As the World Congress drew to a close, event organizers declared the Technology Theater — a first-time attraction at the world's largest yearly gathering of automotive engineers — a categorical hit.

SAE created the Technology Theater to spice up the struggling Congress with thought-provoking commentaries and panel discussions featuring 75 top auto industry executives. From 8 a.m. Monday, March 3, until 2:30 p.m. Thursday, March 6, a steady stream of speakers crossed the stage and fielded questions from the audience about electronics, profitability, diesels, fuel cells, crash safety, lightweight materials and driver distraction.

In the upstairs conference rooms at Detroit's Cobo Center, engineers still presented 1,200 deep-dive technology papers that always have been the foundation of the SAE Congress. The Technology Theater, however, was a forum for those engineers' bosses to give a broader view that was less technically intensive — and more likely to draw a crowd. SAE has yet to determine whether the Technology Theater ended up hurting attendance at the upstairs tech sessions, as there was some overlap in subject matter.

Attendance at the Technology Theater was solid, with capacity for about 375 people. Around lunchtime on the first day, additional chairs had to be rolled out to accommodate the crowd, which was standing-room-only for a number of sessions. And loudspeakers were added at the back of the Technology Theater for those who wanted just to tune in for awhile, without jockeying for a seat.

Richard O. Schaum, who recently retired as executive vice president-product development at Chrysler Group, kicked off the Technology Theater sessions Monday morning and set the tone with a number of predictions, including one that drew healthy chuckles from the audience.

“Automobiles in 2010 will be powered by engines with pistons going up and down in round holes,” Schaum deadpanned. “This is my firm prediction. I'm willing to take bets on it. The ICE (internal combustion engine) has served us very well for over 100 years, and I believe the evolution will continue to deliver significant gains in fuel efficiency — double digit gains,” he insists.

The next day, a less-than-encouraging outlook for hybrids came from an unexpected source: Toyota Motor Corp., whose pioneering Prius hybrid has been on the road two years.

Speaking at the Technology Theater session on gasoline-engine advances, Takehisa Yaegashi, senior general manager-powertrain planning, says the penetration of hybrids in Toyota's worldwide product mix will reach only 5% in 2010.

Ultimately, Yaegashi agreed with Schaum that the ICE still will have the “main role” in light-vehicle powertrains in 2030.

Autos are more affordable as well, Schaum says. In 1991, Americans devoted an average 30.6 weeks of median family income to the new-car purchase, compared to 20 weeks in 2002, Schaum says, quoting Comerica Bank economist David Littmann.

Following Schaum at the Technology Theater podium was James J. Padilla, president of Ford Motor Co.'s North American operations, who reflected on the industry's recent turning of the tides.

“Who could have imagined 10 years ago that Porsche would build a sport/utility vehicle or BMW would market a front-wheel-drive subcompact?” he says. “Who could have predicted that Nissan would build a fullsize pickup truck or that Volkswagen would try to sell a $100,000 car?”