Mark Phelan| Detroit Free Press

The people and technologies that will make future cars safer, smarter and more efficient will be on display this week on the streets of downtown Detroit and in Cobo Center on the city’s riverfront.

The Society of Automotive Engineers annual World Congress brings leading engineers, executives, researchers and regulators to Detroit every spring to talk about today’s challenges and tomorrow’s technologies. The congress, which combines exhibits of new technologies with networking, technical presentations and discussions, is expected to draw about 11,000 participants from around the U.S. and more than 40 countries. That’s up from about 9,000 last year as the industry recovers and faces technical challenges, including cyber security, fuel economy, emissions, connectivity and autonomous driving.

“You can learn a lot about where the industry is heading” at the conference, said Drew Winter, editor-in-chief of Wards Auto World magazine. “It’s a unique opportunity to talk with high-level engineers from around the world.”

The program will also include hundreds of schoolkids racing toy cars and “speed mentoring” sessions for young engineers.

“We’re reaching out to young professionals to show them the auto industry is where the innovation and excitement is,” said Andrew Smart, SAE director of programs. That includes discounted student tickets and the speed mentoring, where young engineers can have 5- to 10-minute one-on-one sessions with veteran industry leaders from the U.S., Korea and Europe.

Speakers will include Kevin Vincent, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration general counsel, and Nigel Francis, Governor Rick Snyder’s top auto advisor

In the technical sessions, engineers and researchers from around the world will talk about the latest developments.

“Cyber security and the connected car will be major areas of focus” among 1,500-plus technical papers and panel discussions, Smart said.

There will also be plenty about new materials that make cars lighter weight without reducing safety. The excitement over the upcoming aluminum-bodied 2015 Ford F-150 pickup also stoked interest in lightweight materials.

General Motors is expected to showcase its aluminum research to counter the attention Ford has received since unveiling the truck in January.

“There’s a much more positive attitude among engineers toward meeting fuel economy and emissions standards” than when safety and emissions regulations were in their infancy, Winter said.

“Engineers love a challenge. Give them a tough problem and they’ll figure it out. They used to complain about government changing the rules all the time, but now that they’ve got consistency from the regulators, they can get to work.”

New developments in transmissions will get plenty of attention.

“How many gears are enough?” as automakers develop automatic gearboxes with 10 or more speeds, Smart asked. “Refinement and smoothness are becoming more important than ever as transmissions shift more.”

Hyundai is the host company, a first for a South Korean automaker. It’s an opportunity to showcase technology, including engines and transmissions. In some ways, sponsoring the congress is Hyundai’s way of announcing to the world that it’s a company to be taken seriously not just for price and style, but for technology.

The fleet of advanced vehicles engineers can drive around downtown Detroit will include a Hyundai Tucson SUV powered by a hydrogen fuel cell and the company’s 2015 Genesis sport sedan, one of the first cars to make full use of Google for speech recognition and navigation.

“It’s great to be around people who get excited about the auto industry, and about making things,” Winter said.

The SAE World Congress in Detroit is the place to be for anybody who feels that way this week.

Contact Mark Phelan: 313-222-6731 or Follow him on Twitter @mark_phelan.

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