15 Engineers Who Are Transforming the Auto Industry

These 15 engineers are working on the auto industry’s most influential projects, from autonomy and electrification to safety and manufacturing.

Engineers are changing the world, and nowhere can it be seen more vividly than in the auto industry. These days, automotive engineers are replacing gasoline with electricity, humans with robots, and mechanical devices with microprocessors.

Here, we offer profiles of 15 engineers who are doing that work. They’re an eclectic bunch, likely to be developing everything from software and electronics to batteries and car bodies. Our top engineers include experts in autonomous driving, RF communications, safety devices, material science, manufacturing, batteries, seating, infotainment, and myriad other technical areas. One is even working on invisibility, and its application to future automobiles.

To be sure, the auto industry employs tens of thousands of engineers, many doing brilliant work. The following group is really just a snapshot – a few of those engaged in groundbreaking developments at seven of the auto industry’s biggest companies.

Here, then, are our 15.

Autonomy: Andrew Farah, General Motors

Autonomous Cars: Michael James, Toyota

Batteries: Taehee Han, Nissan

Car Sharing: Chris Oesterling, General Motors

Electric Cars: JB Straubel, Tesla

Electric Cars: Josh Tavel, General Motors

Fuel Cells: Sara Stabenow, General Motors

Head-Up Displays: Anthony King, Ford

Infotainment: Joey Oravec, Ford

Invisibility: Minjuan Zhang, Toyota

Manufacturing: Matthew Genord, Fiat Chrysler

Regionalization: Matthias Erb, Volkswagen

Safety: Jason Hallman, Toyota

Seating: Marc Kondrad, Ford

V2X Communications: Roy Goudy, Nissan

Man on a Mission

Tesla CTO JB Straubel is trying to change the world by developing an affordable electric car with a 200-mile range.

Tesla chief technology officer JB Straubel has been building electric cars since age 14. (Source: Telsa, Inc.)

If ever an engineer was meant to lead an electric vehicle (EV) revolution, it’s JB Straubel.

Straubel, chief technology officer of Tesla Inc., has been on an EV mission since finding a rusty, 30-year-old golf cart in an Egg Harbor, Wisconsin, junkyard at age 14. Because he didn’t yet have a driver’s license at the time, he convinced his mother to drive him from town to town across the state of Wisconsin in search of batteries, tires, and electric motors, before finally completing the design of his first electric vehicle.

That, of course, was before he convinced Stanford University’s School of Engineering to let him create his own academic major in energy engineering, and graduating with a master’s degree in it.

No wonder, then, that JB Straubel (JB stands for Jeffrey Brian; he prefers not to punctuate it) been on a fast track in the electric car business ever since. He was named CTO at Tesla at age 29 after describing his ideas to former PayPal entrepreneur Elon Musk in 2004.

“I was talking to anyone and everyone to promote the idea that EVs had turned a corner,” Straubel told Design News in 2009. “I told them that with new battery technology, they could go much, much farther than anyone thought was possible. I wanted to demonstrate my ideas in a working vehicle and break a few perceptions.”

He got the chance to do that a year later when he oversaw the design of Tesla’s electric Roadster, which shocked the auto industry by reaching a battery-only range of 244 miles. Later, he spearheaded the design of the Model S electric sedan, which received the best safety score of any vehicle ever tested by the National Traffic Safety Administration, as well as “possibly the best score ever” in a battery of 50 tests performed by Consumer Reports.

Straubel’s mission could culminate in the introduction later this year of a truly affordable electric vehicle known as the Tesla Model 3. The Model 3, which will feature a $30,000 pricetag (after incentives) and a 200-mile all-electric range, is expected by many to serve as a starting point in a long steady climb to a point when half of the world’s vehicles will be plug-ins. Up to now, 200-mile electric cars have appealed mostly to high-end enthusiasts willing to shell out more than $70,000.

That Straubel should play a key role in this electric revolution comes as a surprise to no one. Family members said he was acting as an engineer as early as junior high school, when he built a working hover craft for a science fair. He did it again when he commandeered the family leaf blower to construct a blow furnace, which he used to melt aluminum, although it was  never clear why a pre-high-school-age boy needed molten aluminum.

“JB was born to be an engineer,” his mother, Carol Straubel, told Design News in 2009, when her son, at 34, was named the youngest Design News Engineer of the Year ever.

Still, his mission is far from finished. Straubel now serves on the board of directors for SolarCity and teaches an energy storage integration class, while overseeing the scale-up of the Model 3 program. Even if the Model 3 is massively successful, Straubel is unlikely to stop pushing the automotive industry envelope. “It really feels like we’re trying to change the world,” he told us in 2009. “There’s a real David-and-Goliath feel to it.”

JB Straubel will deliver a keynote speech, Growth in US Manufacturing for EVs, Batteries and Solar, at Advanced Design & Manufacturing Cleveland on March 29, 2017.

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Bringing Invisibility – Yes, Invisibility – to Autos

Minjuan Zhang and her Toyota colleagues are trying to provide unobstructed views for drivers by developing an “invisibility cloak.”

In an industry where power is paramount, Minjaun Zhang is different. Unlike many automotive engineers, Zhang doesn’t deal with horsepower and torque, or even velocity and acceleration. She deals with light, and the way the human eye sees it.

Zhang, a material scientist and longtime Toyota engineer, has amassed more than 50 patents, many of which are based on the properties of materials, and the way light interacts with them. And while that may at first seem vaguely peripheral to automotive engineering, it isn’t. Zhang’s work has the potential to affect driver visibility, safety and, yes, even sales.

In 2016, Zhang made her mark with introduction of a paint color called structural blue. Used on the 2017 Lexus LC 500H, structural blue provides a heretofore unseen rich, deep color that’s bound to appeal to elite consumers in search of a unique look. Zhang said her development of the brilliant color grew from a study of metallic structures in the bodies of butterflies. “We worked with the basic principles of light to create a special effect,” she told Design News.

But her work on structural blue may just be a warm-up. Her current research is the stuff of science fiction, offering drivers the improbable capability of seeing through structures that block their field of view. To put it another way, she’s working on invisibility.

Toyota’s Minjuan Zhang demonstrates the invisibility cloak by lowering a yellow cylinder into the cloaking device. (Source: Toyota Motor Corp.)

The key to unlocking such capabilities, she says, again involves the basic principles of light. Working with fellow Toyota engineer Debashish Banerjee, Zhang has helped create an “invisibility cloak” with mirrors and polarizing lenses. The technology builds on similar research by other scientists but also adds dimensions never seen previously. The lenses obscure an object in a person’s field of view, essentially leaving a “visual black hole.” Then, they reroute light around the object, so that the viewer sees what’s behind it. The end result is that viewers believe they are seeing right through visual obstructions. Significantly, Zhang and Banerjee are accomplishing this in the lab using inexpensive materials, adding a dimension of practicality to the technology.

The yellow cylinder disappears inside the cloaking device and the toy car is visible behind it. (Source: Toyota Motor Corp.)

Toyota engineers decline to discuss the applications for the technology, but it’s relatively easy for a casual observer to guess at its possibilities. Used inside a vehicle, the invisibility cloak could eliminate interior obstructions, such as a vehicle’s roof pillars. With it, a driver could have an unobstructed view through a windshield, or a back-seat passenger could easily see out the side windows.

“We could still keep the same structures, but we could make them invisible so we could improve the view of the driver,” Zhang said. “Whatever [the obstruction] is, the driver could see right through it.”

Zhang, who is believed to hold the most patents of any female engineer in the auto industry, never foresaw herself doing such work. After earning her doctoral degree in material science and engineering from the Tokyo Institute of Technology, she initially worked in the semiconductor industry, developing wiring for integrated circuits.

But she said her move to Detroit and her subsequent automotive work with Toyota Research Institute of North America has been an ideal fit. “I went to the auto industry and I love it,” she said.  

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