GREENVILLE — A sporty, six-seat coupe known as “Deep Orange 3” recently returned from a show in Traverse City, Mich., and sat in a glass-enclosed showroom just off Interstate 85.
The car is truly one of a kind: Its innovations include an electric and gas drive train, a frame made of lighter gauge metal folded in a process called Industrial Origami, and an unusual folding third seat up front.
And all the innovations were designed and built by automotive engineering master’s degree students, who worked closely with Mazda and other companies.
This car is the latest, largest and most eye-catching example of what’s going on at Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research here.
Since its founding a decade ago, the center has been on a roll. This year it completed its third concept car and has two more in the works. Its number of graduate students has climbed to more than 200, a record, and it can boast of graduating the nation’s first male and female Ph.D.s in automotive engineering.
More than 100 companies are engaged in some sort of partnership here, and the center recently opened its fifth building.
The center also serves as a sort of model for what the Clemson University Restoration Institute on the former Charleston Naval Base eventually could become. The institute is scheduled to offer its first academic classes at a new Graduate Engineering Center in two years.
The institute, which focuses on energy and restorative ecology rather than cars, is a few years behind in its development but is following the same public-private model.
John Kelly, Clemson’s vice president for economic development, said both projects have attracted global attention. More than half of CU-ICAR’s students come from other nations, while 80 percent of all wind turbine manufacturers in the world sit on the Restoration Institute’s advisory board.
“Basically, right now, we’re in a place where the whole world is interested in both of these projects, and that makes them very unique in being able to attract business to South Carolina and also to serve the international partners that are already here,” Kelly said.
Suzanne Dickerson, the center’s director of business development, said BMW had “an extra loud voice” in the center’s creation and its early years, but many other businesses have gotten on board.
Clemson has 250 acres here, just south of Greenville, and it has developed only one of five neighborhoods in its master plan. The idea was to grow organically, as car companies and related manufacturers provide a push.
“Everything we do these days is driven by industry needs,” Dickerson said.
For instance, the newest campus building, the 60,000-square-foot Center for Emerging Technologies, contains offices for 15 companies, as well as administrative offices and smaller testing labs.
Dickerson said those smaller labs grew out of conversations with companies in which they were asked why they weren’t using the existing larger labs as much. Many said they just wanted to test a small component and didn’t want to pay for more expensive lab space designed to test an entire car.
In total, Clemson has 12 models for how it partners with companies, agreements that govern everything from students’ involvement to intellectual property.
“Industry wants results yesterday,” she said. “They want them cheap. They want them to appear out of the sky.”
The lifeblood of the campus is the Carroll A. Campbell Jr. Graduate Engineering Center, which houses most of the large labs, classrooms and offices and is reached by a curving ramp wide enough to drive a car on.
Dickerson said CU-ICAR struggled to keep the lights on in 2009, at the dawn of the Great Recession, but 2013 is now a boom year for the automotive industry. Today, she said the greatest challenge is communicating with Clemson’s 101 business partners. The center recently surveyed what they want in terms of research and development, testing, prospective employees and connections to the automotive industry.
“We have a business sense, an entrepreneurial sense,” she added. “It’s always necessary for industry to take time out to think of what their real needs are. It’s kind of like the machine gun salesman tapping General Custer on the arm, and Custer says, ‘Sorry, I’m too busy. I’ll get back to you.’”
While most of CU-ICAR’s students come from outside the United States, a recent survey found 36 percent of the graduates have stayed in South Carolina to work. And 93 percent are employed in the automobile industry or work in automotive academics.
The Restoration Institute that is scheduled to gear up in a few years at the former Naval Base will work with different industries but follow the same model.
While the institute traces its origins to the state’s need to care for the Confederate submarine Hunley after it was raised from the ocean floor in 2000, its focus will include advanced materials — building on the work of the Lasch Conservation Lab — as well as energy systems and restorative ecology.
“CURI has the potential to be even bigger,” Dickerson said.
ICAR and CURI
Following is a comparison of two research campuses:
International Center for Automotive Research
Focus areas: Advanced powertrains; vehicle electronics; manufacturing materials; vehicle-to-vehicle infrastructure; vehicle performance; human factors; systems integration.
Business partners: 101
Companies on campus: 19
Students: More than 200
Location: Interstate 85 and U.S. Highway 276, Greenville.
Acronym: ICAR (Pronounced eye-car)
Clemson University Restoration Institute
Focus areas: Energy systems; advanced materials; restorative ecology.
Business partners: 56
Companies on campus: Announcements pending.
Buildings: Four, plus to-be-built graduate education center
Students: 50 are projected in 2016, when the Graduate Engineering Center’s academic programs are set to begin.
Location: Former Charleston Naval Base, North Charleston.
Acronym: CURI (Pronounced cure-e)