R&D Strategies for New Automotive Technologies: Insight from fuel cells
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ABSTRACT This study analyzes how the automobile industry is pursuing the development of fuel cells as a new propulsion technology for automobiles. Fuel cells represent a fundamentally different powertrain technology that competes technically with the internal combustion engine, which has traditionally been a core competence of automobile manufacturers. The emergence of fuel cells provides a threat to automakers? competence in internal combustion engines, but also presents an opportunity for establishing a competitive position and gaining competence in a new technology. The study gives insights into strategic issues that automakers face through fundamentally new technologies. The key questions analyzed in this study are how new technology such as fuel cells can be identified by automakers, how automakers develop and acquire competence in such a technology that has not been part of the traditional technology portfolio of automakers, and how automakers can keep control over this new technology and derive value as it moves closer to commercialization. Fuel cells were historically first applied in the aerospace industry, and have only been developed for use in automobiles after a technological breakthrough resulted in significant increase of power density and cost reduction. Automakers with ties to the aerospace industry were among the first to recognize the potential of the breakthrough technology, and such early identification gave these companies a lead in R&D investment and patenting. This example of technology dynamics of fuel cells supports the importance of early identification of new technologies and links to related industries as a source of such technologies for the automobile industry. The next phase of fuel cell developments is characterized by an attempt of automakers to acquire competence in fuel cells. Three different organizational approaches are observed among the automakers: internal development of fuel cells, collaborative research, and a wait-and-see approach that favors licensing of the technology. The design of collaborative research alliances, such as the partnership between DaimlerChrysler, Ford and Ballard, suggests that technology that is new to the automobile industry needs to be viewed from a systems perspective. While early research activity focused on the fuel cell only, the establishment of an alliance provided an effective way of combining technical competence on all components of a fuel cell powertrain system. The research alliance also broadens the coverage of intellectual property with patents, but this also limits the control of automakers over the technology. The last part of the report discusses implications for automakers regarding the ability to control and derive value in the case the technology is successfully commercialized. It is argued that new suppliers are likely to participate in a future market for fuel cell powertrains, according to their technical competence and role as early participants in the development of fuel cell components. Automakers can keep control over the technology and participate in a potential market for fuel cells by becoming system integrators, and through continued development of key fuel cell components.
powertrain, daimlerchrysler, fuel cell