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.

Charles Murray

March 8, 2017

48 Min Read
15 Engineers Who Are Transforming the Auto Industry

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.


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.  


Ford infotainment engineer Joey Oravec: “We don’t want to deliver a product to the market, and then have the market test it for us.” (Source: Ford Motor Co.

Keeping the Bugs at Bay on Ford’s New Sync 3

Ford infotainment engineer Joey Oravec has the unenviable task of eliminating software and hardware glitches before users ever see them.

When consumers use their car’s infotainment system, the last thing they want is a software glitch.

At Ford, Joey Oravec is the engineer who keeps that from happening. Oravec, who served as the technical lead for software development on the Sync 3, had the task of weeding through 750,000 test drives worth of data to find out why a screen may have been unresponsive, or what the root cause of an unexplained system crash was.

“It’s particularly difficult when you have one of those one-in-a-million problems, because you’re trying to pull a needle out of a haystack to understand what happened,” Oravec told Design News. “So we have to expand our scope to extract that needle from the haystack.”

Indeed, expanding the scope is what Orvaec does. Using a high performance computing cluster, Oravec led Ford in an effort cull Sync 3 data from a global engineering test fleet of almost 1,000 vehicles. That’s an unenviable task, given that every Sync incorporates millions of lines of code, and given the fact that Oravec and his team must find the root causes of all problems, and then drive improvements to the code so that it can’t happen again. Moreover, they must do it over and over, repeating the process for every new feature and every new set of problems.

“We need to keep a tight loop, so we can keep innovating [Sync 3] multiple times before it hits,” Oravec told us. “We don’t want to deliver a product to the market, and then have the market test it for us.”

Adding to the complexity is the fact that Ford Sync is virtually universal to the company’s product line. “We make high-end cars, entry-level cars and trucks,” Oravec told us. “And we need to scale and fit those solutions into all of those different kinds of vehicle lines.”

Software and hardware development, however, is no new task for Oravec. He holds a B.S. in computer engineering from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, has worked as an integrated circuit designer, has developed embedded systems, and has been involved with the development of facial and voice recognition systems. He has also participated in Society of Automotive Engineers standards committees to help shape a so-called pass-through systems standard, which enables vehicle electronics modules to be reprogrammed through the OBD (on-board diagnostics) port.

None of his experiences in electronics, however, have posed the kind of challenge that Sync 3 has, he said. Sync 3 development never stops because, unlike a cell phone that gets replaced after only two or three years, Sync must remain intact for the life of a vehicle, which could be ten years or more. The result is that the product is constantly changing and engineers have to support and deliver new features to keep pace with the consumer market.

Ford engineers have managed to accomplish that, however. The company recently rolled out Sync 3 globally to its entire vehicle line in an extraordinary 18-month time span.

Still, the work is never done. “We have 200 markets globally, and we’re putting the infotainment product in all of those,” Oravec said. “And we don’t get to shut down every plant for two weeks while we do software updates.”


Delivering GM to the Promised Land of Autonomy

Andrew Farah is using his expertise in embedded systems to reach the ultimate automotive goal.    

Andrew Farah is spearheading GM’s development of autonomous driving technology. (Source: General Motors)

When Andrew Farah launched his automotive career as a co-op student with General Motors in the late 1970s, he was initially disappointed.

“When I came to the auto industry, they put me in data processing,” he recalls now. “And I said, ‘No, I want to work on cars.’”

In retrospect, however, it now appears GM knew what it was doing. Over more than 30 years, Farah has parlayed a background in embedded systems into key roles on a succession of groundbreaking GM vehicles, including the EV-1, Chevy Volt, Spark EV, Bolt EV and now, its autonomous car program.

“It seems I’ve always been following the latest trends,” he said.His experience may turn out to be critical for GM as it competes with the likes of Waymo (formerly the Google self-driving car project) in the world of autonomous driving. That’s because Farah, unlike so many of the more traditional mechanical engineers in Detroit, has a computer background. He earned a B.S. in computer engineering and an M.S. in electrical science from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, then weaved his academic training together with a passion for cars to work on computerized braking systems, touch screens and electrification systems.  

Autonomy, however, may be the trend that makes all the others look insignificant, he said. He neatly separates the process of autonomous driving into four key steps – sense, perceive, plan and control. “The four steps are very different,” he told us. “They require different kinds of expertise and they result in different systems on the car.” As chief technical architect at GM, Farah will need to tap into different knowledge bases – from electrical and mechanical to software and even artificial intelligence—to orchestrate his company’s mastery of those systems.

GM tests one of its autonomous fleet vehicles in Michigan. (Source: General Motors)

He predicts that autonomy will happen in a series of advances, starting with relatively simple driving chores and eventually graduating to operation in more complex environments. “Even in the human world, there’s a spectrum of drivers who are comfortable doing some things but not others,” he told us. “Autonomous vehicles will be similar in that way – there will be a spectrum. The point is, we won’t deploy them in environments and situations where we don’t believe they’ll be successful.”

That, however, doesn’t mean that GM is shy about pushing the envelope on autonomous technology. Through its investment in Cruise Automation, the giant automaker is already running autonomous cars (with human drivers on board) on busy San Francisco streets. The goal of engineers is to expose the technology to new situations, and thereby chip away at the number of events where humans might otherwise be called upon to take over the driving chores. “It’s been enlightening,” Farah said. “When we put the first cars out there, they worked okay, not great. But they’ve been getting better and better.”

Ultimately, GM’s plan is to deliver autonomy to its vehicles, but not until the company’s engineers are convinced that it’s universally safer than human driving.For Farah, such goals are a far cry from his days as a data processing technician. But because an autonomous car is essentially a computer on wheels, there’s an element of consistency to it, he says. “It’s about my two favorite passions – cars and computers,” he said. “I guess I always figured this is where I’d end up.”


Answering the Call for a Better Body

FCA body engineer Matthew Genord spearheaded a manufacturing change that brought a unique look to the Chrysler Pacifica minivan.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles engineer Matthew Genord helped changed the minivan sliding door assembly process, thus producing a unique new look for the 2017 Pacifica. (Source: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles)

Sometimes, change can be difficult.

But when a product manufacturer invests $2 billion in a new product, as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles did with the 2017 Pacifica minivan, change can be necessary, even when it’s uncomfortable.

That’s where Matthew Genord came in. Genord, a longtime body engineer for Chrysler, spearheaded a manufacturing change that brought a new look to the Pacifica. His solution, a two-piece hinge that led to a better way to assemble the vehicle’s sliding doors, gave designers the freedom to replace the utilitarian look of the common minivan with an SUV-type of stylishness. By most accounts – both inside and outside the company – the new look has been a hit.

Still, factory floor metamorphisis is no simple task, especially when you’re replacing a tried-and-true method that’s worked reliably for decades. “Over years of experience, you get caught in a comfort zone and you don’t want to change,” Genord told Design News. “You have to change the mindset to: ‘Yeah, we can do it another way.’”

The key to the new mindset was Genord’s two-piece hinge. Unlike previous sliding door hinges, which resided only on the door, the new hinge was split – part of it on the door and part on the vehicle’s body. The upshot was simpler assembly. Instead of factory floor assemblers loading the door from the rear, the door could now be loaded from the side. That, in turn, meant that the body’s sliding door track could be shorter, thus freeing up space for designers to work their magic.   

Even so, it wasn’t a slam dunk. Many in the company, understandably concerned about changing an established methodology, balked. “We were concerned with a lot of issues,” Genord said. “Could we do it? Was there enough time on the line to load the doors that way? So we did some mock-ups and simulations to ensure it could be done.”

When the mock-ups and simulations proved it would work, designers went back to studio, changing the lines in the clay models to produce a new look for the Pacifica. The result was that the traditional rectangular rear side windows were reshaped to trapezoidal, giving the vehicle a look of motion, even when it was standing still. In short, the minivan now looked more like an SUV.

The rear side of the 2017 Pacifica sports a distinctive, SUV-type appearance. (Source: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles)

For Genord, the change was a natural evolution, based in large part on a career’s worth of work in minivans, both as an engineer and consumer. Starting in the automotive industry straight out of high school and earning his B.S. in engineering from Lawrence Technological University over eight years at night, Genord had always been deeply involved in body engineering and manufacturing. He participated in the launch of four previous minivans, had worked in a stamping plant, and had done dimensional control of vehicle bodies. Moreover, as a father of six children, he had owned minivans for close to 25 years, at times drawing on his experience as an owner to bring innovations to Chrysler’s products. “My role as an owner gave me the ability to bring the perspective of an engineer to my family’s vehicles,” he said.

In the end, his two-piece hinge concept worked. Among consumers and industry experts, the results were easily visible. At January’s Detroit Auto Show, the new Pacifica was named the North American Utility of the Year. In February, it received MotorWeek’s 2017 Driver’s Choice Award for best minivan.For Genord, the accolades were great, but the experience served more as a lesson in how an entrenched manufacturing culture can affect the limits of design. “It wasn’t just a process change,” he said, looking back on it. “It was a change in the way of thinking.”


Saving Lives with Communication

Engineer Roy Goudy is leading Nissan’s development of vehicle-to-vehicle technology.

V2V engineer Roy Goudy of Nissan: “The way we use the data is our secret sauce.” (Source: Nissan Motor Co.)

Roy Goudy’s dream is that cars will one day talk to each other, as well as to stop signs, traffic lights, and roadside displays.

“In the U.S., there were 32,000 traffic fatalities last year,” he told Design News. “And vehicle-to-vehicle communication has the potential to reduce those numbers. For that reason, my hope is to see it come to fruition.”

To be sure, Goudy isn’t alone in that hope. In December, the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced a proposed rule to advance deployment of the technology in U.S. cars. Moreover, every major automaker is working on incorporating vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) in its future fleets.

“It’s revolutionary,” Goudy said, “because with this technology, Nissans will have to talk to GM vehicles and Fords will have to talk to Toyotas.”

Indeed, automakers must work together to some degree on V2V to provide vehicles with a common broadcast platform for communication. At the same time, however, all automakers are working on their own flavors of the technology to enable their vehicles to respond uniquely to the messages flying back and forth.

Nissan, for example, developed a warning system tailor-made to prevent intersection crashes. The software, developed under Goudy’s lead, enables a vehicle to read the V2V messages, determine if a crossing-car crash is imminent, and warn the driver accordingly. The algorithm also predicts and reacts to potential head-on crashes in left-turn scenarios. Nissan’s solution is indeed unique, earning its engineering crew 11 patents, with six more pending.

To understand its full lifesaving power, however, it’s best to look at what V2V can do. The technology, which uses a credit card-sized transceiver board communicating at 5.9-GHz, saves lives by warning drivers of many hazardous scenarios. Hazards include impending collisions at blind intersections (like those patented by Nissan), blind-spot lane changes and potential rear-end collisions, among others. V2V cars would recognize hard braking as far as a quarter mile ahead and relay that to other vehicles behind them, enabling them to slow down.

“It goes beyond what an autonomous car can do,” Goudy told us. “It’s not just some signature from a sensor that has to be characterized. It’s high-level information. We’re sending messages with speed information, acceleration information and GPS information that can be acted on immediately.”

NHTSA has said that the new communication technology will save more lives than seat belts, airbags, and stability control systems … combined. Its experts predict it could eliminate about 80% of the fatalities that occur on U.S. highways every year.

Ironically, Goudy never foresaw himself doing anything close to what he’s doing now. After earning a B.S. in metallurgical engineering from the University of Washington and aiming for a job in the steel industry, Goudy joined the U.S. Air Force, where he worked on guidance systems. He later earned an M.S. in physics from the University of Utah and moved to Japan to work in the auto industry. Ultimately, he ended up back in the U.S., developing intelligent transport systems for Nissan.

“Early on, the prospect of working in the auto industry never even registered with me,” he told us. “But, then again, when I graduated from college, we didn’t even have cell phones.”

Now, however, Goudy sees radio frequency communication as a major lifesaving force. And he believes that every automaker can make a difference. “It’s up to our individual creativity and ingenuity to say, ‘What can I do with this (V2V) information? How can I use it to prevent an accident?’” he said. “That’s where the intellectual property comes in – the way we use the data is our secret sauce.”  


Lifesaving Engineer

Toyota crashworthiness engineer Jason Hallman is developing better ways to understand accidents and prevent fatalities.

Toyota engineer Jason Hallman says engineers need to keep improving on automotive crashworthiness because accidents will always be with us. (Source: Toyota)

Jason Hallman can picture a perfect world where automotive crashes don’t exist.

Unfortunately, that picture-perfect world won’t arrive for a long time. “I imagine there will be a point where it’s true,” he told Design News recently. “But I don’t think it’s going to happen in my career.”

That’s why there’s still a need for Hallman. Hallman, who’s responsible for advanced development of future crashworthiness performance at Toyota, says the best thing we can do in the near future is provide individualized protection for every vehicle occupant, in every imaginable crash scenario.

He’s working on that in a variety of ways, including development of better crash dummies. Through a computational model called THUMS (Total Human Model for Safety), he’s simulating what happens to vital organs such as the heart, lungs, and liver, during a crash. Through the use of an LED-based, supplier-developed, optical system called RibEye, he’s examining deflections inside the rib cage of the human body during an impact. And through the use of sensor-laden dummies with hundreds of data channels, he is now able to piece together a better picture of the damage done to real bodies.   

 “Some of the crash dummies used today meet the regulations, but they’re decades old,” he told us. “The newer dummies will allow better prediction of actual, real-world injuries.”

Hallman’s crashworthiness work has at times gone beyond the bounds of Toyota. He was involved in the implementation of Federal Vehicle Motor Safety Standard 226, which mandated a way to prevent occupants from being ejected from vehicles during a rollover. A key piece of the standard is a means for keeping side curtain airbags inflated for a full six seconds, instead of the conventional 50 msec, as was done previously. Suppliers accomplished that by developing larger inflators that sealed gas inside more effectively, and such systems are now on the road. “It remains inflated about two orders of magnitude longer that a typical airbag,” Hallman said. “And it allows for cushioning during a long-duration rollover event. That way, it mitigates ejection.”

Hallman has also served as an editor for SAE’s International Journal of Transportation Safety, and has authored more than 40 articles, papers and abstracts on injury biomechanics and vehicle safety.

Such work is ideally suited to Hallman, who started out as a mechanical engineering student considering medicine as a career. After receiving a BSME from Valparaiso University, he went on to get a PhD in biomedical engineering from Marquette University and even worked briefly as a co-op student for a company that made orthopedic implants before settling in at Toyota. “It wasn’t until I went to grad school that I found my perfect mesh – my Venn Diagram intersection – of protecting the human body in an automobile,” he said.

Although he likes to imagine a day when crashes won’t occur, he knows it won’t happen any time soon. Autonomous cars will help reduce the 30,000-plus annual fatalities on U.S. roads today, he says, but they won’t stop it altogether. They will need to co-exist with human drivers for decades, resulting in a continuing element of unpredictability in the crash equation. Moreover, autonomous occupants might not be as easily protected as today’s belted drivers. “If customers expect a great deal of flexibility in terms of what kinds of activities they can partake in in an autonomous vehicle, then we’ll need to consider safety in all of those new scenarios,” Hallman said.

For that reason, Hallman believes his work as a crashworthiness engineer will continue. “We’ll always need to plan for the scenario where a tree falls in front of you at highway speeds,” he told us. “There are a certain number of crashes that can’t be predicted or prevented.”


Delivering EVs to the Masses

GM engineer Josh Tavel wants the Chevy Bolt to appeal to more than enthusiasts.    

Josh Tavel, chief engineer of the Chevy Bolt, holds the 2017 Motor Trend Car of the Year Award. (Source: General Motors)

Josh Tavel doesn’t want the Chevy Bolt to appeal only to early adopters. He doesn’t want only environmentalists or enthusiasts to buy it.

He wants the mainstream.

A self-described “car guy” and a racing buff, Tavel foresees the battery-electric Bolt having a broad customer base. Consumers who like the Bolt’s cost, range, torque and recharge time, as well as those who never want to visit a gas station again, are all potential customers, he says. “I’ve failed if this only appeals to customers who previously owned a Volt or Leaf,” he told Design News. “I want this to appeal to everybody who has a lifestyle that fits it.”

That, of course, is a tall order for a technology that has yet to pique the interest of the car-buying public. Last year, pure electric cars still made up less than 0.5% of US new car sales.

But Tavel sees good reason for optimism. As chief engineer of the all-electric Bolt, Tavel oversaw the inclusion of features that make for a better car, no matter what the power source. The 60-kWh battery, for example, is engineered in a way that creates more cabin space. The car’s rockers are eliminated, so egress and ingress is easier. The Bolt even offers a “one-pedal mode,” which allows drivers to stop the vehicle without using the brake pedal under certain conditions. Tavel says he uses the one-pedal feature himself, seldom employing the brake pedal on his nightly drives home.

Such features, he says, aren’t obvious to the user, but they serve as design elements that quietly contribute to a better overall experience. “When you have a good product – like an Apple phone – it’s intuitive, but you don’t notice it’s intuitive,” he told us. “It just works. That’s the sign of great engineering.”

Tavel should know, having had a whirlwind ride through GM on numerous product launches. At 37, he has already served as chief engineer on the Bolt and Volt, has managed vehicle integration, chassis controls and vehicle dynamics at GM’s operations in Brazil, has done vehicle dynamics at GM’s Milford Proving Grounds, and has designed steering systems at the automaker’s Janesville, WI, facilities.

None of that comes as a surprise to Tavel, who holds a B.S. in engineering technology from Minnesota State and an M.S. in engineering from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. Even while living in Minnesota, he said, he was a fan of the Detroit Lions football team, knowing that he would one day live and work in Detroit. “My parents will tell you that they knew I was going to do this when I was in grade school,” he told Design News. “This has been the goal for as long as I have memories – to work on cars and do exactly what I’m doing.”

Thus far, Tavel’s work has been appreciated. In November, the 2017 Bolt was named Motor Trend Car of the Year. At January’s Detroit Auto Show, it was named North American Car of the Year.

Tavel believes that the Bolt’s recent acceptance reflects a larger emerging trend. “As battery costs drop, as propulsion costs drop, and range rises, it gives us market acceptance,” he said. “We’re on a very good glide path to create a really big market for electric vehicles.”


Ford Engineer Takes Automotive Seating to New Levels

Marc Kondrad headed a Ford team that developed an innovative automotive seat with 83 patent filings.

Ford engineer Marc Kondrad: “To get a few patents on a seat is a big deal. To get 83 is unheard of.”  (Source: Ford Motor Co.)

In an era when vehicle autonomy and electrification dominate the news, few technologies go more unrecognized than automotive seating.

Luckily, Ford Motor Co. is one automaker that doesn’t give short shrift to seating, and the giant automaker can prove it. At a time when many competitors still contract the design of seats to outsiders, Ford has created its own “seating skunkworks,” with stellar results.

Its new Perfect Position Seat, which is said to be adjustable in 30 different ways, has an extraordinary 83 patent filings, with 30 granted to date. “To get a few patents on a seat is a big deal,” Marc Kondrad, advanced core seat engineering team lead for Ford, told Design News. “To get 83 is unheard of.”

Indeed, Ford’s new technology is a really big deal in the world of automotive seating. It’s notable for its potential number of adjustments – to the track, head restraint, upper back bolster, thigh supports, lumbar and elsewhere. But it’s also notable for its use of a so-called comfort carrier – a suspension system of plastic and foam that flexes around the body, taking stress off the shoulders and neck.

“It has a unique feel that didn’t previously exist in the market place,” Kondrad told us. “Basically, it lets you float in the seat.”

The seat also incorporates other innovations, such as split cushions for separate leg supports and adjustable air bladders for different body types, making it what Ford calls “a world-class seat.”

Kondrad says the seat is the culmination of a long effort by Ford to put itself at the head of the industry in automotive seating. Ford originally brought seating design in house in 2004, then ratcheted up its effort in 2010 by trying to build a new seat around a deeper understanding of the human body. That led to the formation of a special team, drawn from around the company, who were tasked with the idea of taking it from concept to reality.

Ultimately, the new seat became a product of countless ideas and iterations, Kondrad said. “We would fabricate very quickly, learn from it, go back to the computer, do a few rapid prototype parts, and just keep improving it,” he told us.

Kondrad’s background fit neatly into the project. A mechanical engineering grad from Central Michigan University who also holds an auto body design degree, Kondrad has spent more than 25 years in seating. He started his career in seating engineering with a local design contractor, where he says he learned how to prototype his ideas. Later, he did co-op work for Ford, learning about the use of plastics, foams and hard trim materials in seats.

And the experience has paid off. The new seat, employed in the 2017 Lincoln Continental, is 8% lighter than predecessors and cost 15% less, despite the addition of the new features. It was named a Grand Award winner in a Society of Plastics Engineers competition and won a Ten Best of 2016 award given by the Detroit News.

Next, Kondrad wants to point the company’s innovating ability at the autonomous car market. Seats, he says, can spell the difference between drivers being alert and aware or distracted and uncomfortable. And he wants to be there to make that difference.  “Autonomous is a hot topic right now, and we’re beginning to look at innovations for that,” he said. “But first, we have to keep this core group together, so we can deliver more innovations.”


From Video Games to the Future of the Automobile

Chris Oesterling developed a diagnostic system that saves General Motors an astounding $350 million a year.

Chris Oesterling helped build the software platform for GM’s fledgling OnStar Division, has developed wireless diagnostic systems to help weed out vehicle warranty issues, and is now laying the electronic groundwork for the company’s new car-sharing business, called Maven. (Source: General Motors)

When he was writing Atari video games in assembly language during the mid-1980s, Chris Oesterling never foresaw himself as an automotive engineer. But back then, automotive electronics held little promise for engineers.

How times change. In the ensuing 30 years, Oesterling helped build the software platform for GM’s fledgling OnStar Division, developed wireless diagnostic systems to help weed out vehicle warranty issues, and is now laying the electronic groundwork for the company’s new car-sharing business, called Maven. In the process, he has earned more than 70 patents, with 30 more pending.

And the key to it all, he says, was the video games. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Oesterling recalled recently. “It helped with firmware implementation, because writing back then was so difficult. Having that background was great.”

Indeed, it’s hard to question Oesterling’s assessment, given the fact that he programmed in assembly language on a 1.2-MHz processor with 4K of RAM and 16K of programming space. “We literally counted every cycle back then,” he said.

The experience paid off, though, especially for GM. Working later in the OnStar Division, Oesterling is said to have saved the company an astounding $350 million a year by developing OnStar Vehicle Diagnostics (OVD). OVD turned out to be a virtual godsend for GM because it enabled test engineers to pull diagnostic codes via e-mail to fix potential warranty problems before they happened.

“The invention turned into a form of warranty protection,” Oesterling told us. “We fix the problems that might not have been caught otherwise, and we avoid the warranty costs.”

GM is hoping that Oesterling’s knack for being on the cutting edge is going to repeat itself at Maven. Maven is seen as a major corporate building block for the company because it enables GM to get into the so-called “car sharing” end of the business. In car sharing, subscribers go to a location, access a vehicle, drive off, and drop it elsewhere. Oesterling’s role is to help develop a personalized mobility technology platform – an embedded car-sharing module that resides inside the vehicle and communicates to a customer’s mobile phone via Bluetooth low energy. “It gives the user the ability to access the vehicle, unlock it and start it,” Oesterling said.

The move to Maven may once again may make Oesterling a key part of GM’s future. GM execs have big plans for Maven because they see it, not only as a way to tap into the fledgling vehicle-sharing trend, but as way to build a foundation for autonomous driving. Autonomy, they say, will be a key part of car sharing, and vice versa.

Oesterling, meanwhile, sees his role in Maven as a chance to impact the quality of life for a new subset of GM customers. “It improves peoples’ lives,” he said. “It gives them the freedom to do things they might have done otherwise because they don’t own a car.”

So while Oesterling’s transformation from video games designer to one of GM’s most valued engineers may seem initially improbable, it all makes perfect sense to him.“Those were very exciting times,” he said, recalling his gaming efforts of the 1980s. “They influenced my whole engineering career.”   


VW Engineer Spearheads Regionalization Effort

Matthias Erb is tailoring Volkswagen’s American vehicles for American consumers.

Volkswagen engineer Matthias Erb: “Our goal is to capture the minds of the market.” (Source: Volkswagen AG)

When Volkswagen Group rolled out its seven-seat, Atlas sport utility vehicle late last year, American auto publications were enamored.

“Atlas is just more in every direction,” wrote Road & Track, “and that’s a quality the American market seems to be appreciating a lot.” Similarly, Motor Trend noted that the Atlas had “a more muscular look compared to the frumpy curves found in most competitors.”

Why the praise? Volkswagen would like to think it stems directly from an unhidden engineering bid to make its U.S. cars … well, more American.

“If you’re looking to make cars that have the look and feel of the region, then the last 30-40% of the car’s value has to be developed in that region,” Matthias Erb, executive vice president for the company’s new North American Engineering and Planning Center, told Design News. “So we’re starting to bring more American influence into the base development of our cars.”

Indeed, the 2018 Atlas prime example of that strategy. The new vehicle is a product of an internal corporate belief that the company had been guilty of bringing in cars from Europe with relatively little input from the regions where they’d be sold. That changed with the Atlas. Under Erb’s direction, the giant automaker looked at how Americans lived their lives, especially in their midsize SUVs. Engineers determined that early versions of the SUV were too compact, designed too much from a European perspective.

As a result, they shaped the CrossBlue for the wider roads and bigger cities of the U.S. They also changed the grille, integrated LED headlights, added daytime running lights, developed a new digital cockpit, and settled on a three-row, seven-seat layout. What’s more, the vehicle is being built in the U.S., in Chattanooga, TN, not far from the Engineering Center.

Volkswagen’s 2018 Atlas was designed for an American market and is being built in Chatanooga, TN. (Source: Volkswagen AG)

Plans are to add a similarly Americanized flavor to a forthcoming version of the Passat.

“This is the path we’re taking here,” Erb told us. “We’re not going to develop engines here; we’re not going to develop chassis here; but we are going to create cars that fit the region.”

The role is not an unfamiliar one for Erb, who previously served in management with Audi of America. He also worked as a lecturer in quality assurance at the University of Mainz in Germany, and earned his PhD in mechanical engineering at Aachen University of Technology.

He says he plans to continue his regionalization efforts as Volkswagen lays plans for electrification of up to 25% of its lineup by 2025. During that time, he will also beef VW’s U.S.-based engineering lineup.

“Our goal is to capture the minds of the market,” Erb told us. “We want to be able keep developing vehicles here.”


Toyota Engineer Sets His Sights on Autonomy’s ‘Long Tail’

Toyota engineer Michael James says that full autonomy should not be deployed until the last 0.01% of driving situations are better understood.

Michael James, director of autonomous driving for Toyota: “This technology has the potential to change the world.” (Source: Toyota)

Toyota engineer Michael James has a unique viewpoint on the autonomous car. The real challenge of it, he says, is developing machines that are intelligent enough to handle the “long tail” – the last few complex traffic situations that are almost impossible to imagine, let alone solve.

“We have to be able to handle not only the 99.99% of situations that are pretty straightforward, but also the last 0.01%,” said James, director of autonomous driving for Toyota. “For most humans, that might only happen once or twice in a lifetime, but we still have to do it.”

Under James’ direction, Toyota is working on a two-pronged approach that would allow it to deploy lower-level automated systems now, while continuing to work on the long tail for the future. An automated system called Guardian would make driving safer by stepping in when human drivers are making an error, while a separate system known as Chauffeur would serve as a so-called “L4 and L5” fully autonomous solution.

Toyota’s approach differs from those of some automakers that want to go directly to L4 and L5, James said. “Toyota is saying that full autonomy is not the only way to leverage this technology,” he told Design News. “We should be deploying it earlier, only stepping in at those times when the human is making a mistake.”

James contends that news reports of self-driving vehicles give the public the idea that full autonomy is closer than it really is. Full autonomy, he says, requires that vehicles can handle that last 0.01%. “What we’re seeing is a real acceleration in the early days,” he said. “But as we get to the long tail, things will drag out slower than people hope.”

James, who has been working on autonomous systems since Toyota began its effort in 2005, understands the challenges of engineering a self-driving vehicle. After earning a B.S. in computer science from Michigan Tech University, he went on to get M.S. and PhD degrees from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor with a special focus on machine learning and intelligent systems. His work in autonomous vehicle systems is a natural outgrowth of those studies, he said.

For James, the big question is when the world will be ready for adoption of autonomous technology. Today, more than 32,000 people annually die in the U.S. due to vehicle crashes caused by humans, but many in the auto industry believe that the public will be less accepting of traffic fatalities caused by machine error, even if the overall fatality numbers are lower.

The Toyota two-pronged approach might save lives, even as the debate over such matters rages, he said. “This technology has the potential to change the world,” James told us. “And we’re committed to making the vision a reality.”


Systems Engineer Smoothes Integration of New Head-Up Display

Ford engineer Anthony King spearheaded the effort to put a groundbreaking HUD in new Lincolns.

Ford engineer Anthony King orchestrated the addition of a first-ever head-up display for Lincoln luxury cars. (Source: Ford Motor Co.)

When Ford engineers floated the idea of a groundbreaking new head-up display (HUD) for the company’s luxury vehicles back in 2011, it first seemed like a good idea. Then reality set in.

“Somebody asked, ‘Why don’t we do a big HUD?’ recalled Anthony King, Ford’s development lead. “But the quick response was that nobody at Ford wanted to do it because it was so hard.”

Indeed, the idea of adding a shoebox-sized projection display behind the instrument cluster appeared, at first, daunting. That’s because that area was already claimed by wiring, ducts, brackets and cross-car beams. Engineers referred to the territory as “Manhattan real estate” – too crowded and too valuable for the addition of, well, anything.

“We were trying to squeeze a very large box into an area that had no extra space to begin with,” King recalled.

Still, Ford’s engineers had an irresistible idea for a glitzy new breed of HUD (so advanced that they still haven’t spoken about it publicly), so they forged ahead. And because King had honed his systems engineering skills in the aerospace industry, he seemed the likely candidate to make it happen.

Making it happen, however, was no easy task. To start, King had to work with the body interior team to carve out the necessary space, finding new routing for ducts, wiring, and beams. Then his team had to bring in a new type of windshield, with tolerances tighter than anything they’d ever seen. After that, team members went back to the design studio to make sure the windshield could be shaped in the proper way to accommodate the HUD. Finally, they worked with Ford’s customer service division to ensure dealers would have proper training on the strange new display technology.

King’s contribution was to orchestrate the integration of the system into a vehicle platform that had previously been established with no thought to the addition of a HUD. And to do that, he had to unite team members behind a common, albeit difficult, goal. “Since we had never done it before, there was no plan, no process in place to help us shoehorn the HUD into the car,” King recalled. “All of it had to be created from scratch.”

Orchestration, however, is King’s specialty. A systems integration expert with an M.S. in mechanical engineering and an MBA from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, King had worked on pioneering technologies from the beginning of his career. He started out designing ballistic interceptor missiles, later coming to Ford to develop active safety systems. His previous experience in the aerospace industry, where HUDs are commonplace, added to his comfort with Ford’s effort, as did the fact that he had three family members who had worked for Ford.

King is confident that Ford’s HUD effort will be well received by consumers. Marketing tests have proven the HUD to be popular with potential vehicle buyers, especially millennials who’ve grown up with video games. “Ninety-nine percent of the drivers who use this HUD say they have to have one,” King told us. “It takes 15 minutes of driving and they get used to it. Then they say they can’t live without it.”

Ford is saying little about how the new technology will work, but they are acknowledging that it will be launched in its Lincoln brand later this year, and possibly propagate across Ford vehicle lines later.

King is optimistic, not only because of the consumer tests, but because he believes the technology offers common sense benefits. “In my vision, HUD is a key asset for enhancing the driving experience,” he told us. “It gives you the opportunity to keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel.”


Shaping the Future of Green Cars

Nissan engineer Taehee Han is leading the company’s effort to build a better EV battery.Like all automakers, Nissan Motor Co. wants to build a better electric car battery, so that the world will beat a path to its door.

And Nissan engineer Taehee Han is the point man in the company’s effort. Han heads a staff that includes 10 PhDs – chemists, materials scientists, and chemical engineers – who have put the company at the front of EV business by keeping their battery effort in house.

“We are not only assembling EVs, we’re manufacturing batteries and motors and all the parts necessary to make EVs,” Han told Design News. “We basically make everything here from scratch.”

Indeed, Nissan is unusual in its use of so-called “vertical integration.” Unlike General Motors, which uses battery cells designed by LG Chem, and Tesla, which employs a Panasonic design, Nissan has stuck with an in-house approach that even skeptics would have to concede has yielded great results. To date, the company has sold more than 250,000 all-electric cars, making it the industry leader. Moreover, none of those vehicles have suffered a major battery-overheating problem.

Nissan engineer Taehee Han is leading the company’s effort to build a better EV battery. (Source: Nissan Motor Co.)

“We have zero fire incidents,” Han told us. “Our battery is so safe, even the Chinese government uses it as a reference for their stringent abuse tests.”

Han says the company’s safety record is partially a result of its vertically integrated approach, and partially the product of a concerted safety effort. Material scientists are directed to use the safest possible materials, he said, while pack and vehicle designers are careful to enclose the battery in a way that protects it. “If there’s a catastrophic collision, our battery pack will be safe,” Han said. 

At the same time, Nissan continues to drive down costs, while searching for ways to reduce recharge times. Like most automakers, it is following the long-time lead of the United States Advanced Battery Consortium (USABC), which continues to aim for a cost target of $100/kWh. But Nissan also keeps its own numbers in mind. “Our internal target is lower than that,” Han said. “Always lower.”

Han added that the EV’s all-electric driving range is reaching the point where it’s less of a concern than recharge time. “Even though we can drive 300 miles with a huge pack, we still have to wait an hour-and-a-half to charge up,” he said. “Some customers are not going to like that, so we need to develop quick charging.”

Such concerns are not what Han originally imagined for himself while growing up in South Korea. After earning a B.S. in mechanical engineering there, however, he became fascinated with green energy and moved to the U.S. to study wind turbines, ultimately earning an M.S. in engineering at Texas A&M University. A PhD in energy engineering followed at the University of North Dakota, where he took a special interest in hydrogen fuel storage. At that point, Han saw himself working for an electric utility or an energy company. But fate interceded again when his background in fuel cells landed him a position in the auto industry at Nissan.

Han’s circuitous route to automotive battery engineering is really just a classic case of cross-pollination, he said. “Even though my disciplines were mechanical engineering and energy engineering, I never lost my interest in green energy,” he told us. “As a high skill engineer, you always need to know other disciplines in order to develop something new and better.”

Ultimately, batteries offer the same kind of green potential as wind turbines, and that satisfies Han. “A great energy future is one of my dreams,” he said. “And I think it’s possible.”


Cutting the Cost of Hydrogen Fuel Cells

GM fuel cell engineer Sara Stabenow wants to bring hydrogen-powered cars to production in the near future.

GM engineering group manager Sara Stabenow: “Every person who has visited our lab has been surprised. They always say, ‘We didn’t know you were this close to manufacturing.’” (Source: General Motors)

Sara Stabenow’s dream is to capture the unused energy from spinning wind turbines, run it through electrolyzers, and produce millions of gallons of cheap hydrogen fuel.

And when that era of cheap, plentiful, hydrogen fuel arrives, Stabenow will be ready. As an engineering group manager for General Motors’ fuel cell program, she’s already working on lower-cost fuel cells for automobiles. Next-generation fuel cells will be a fraction of the size and cost of what’s available today, she says, and will be capable of going head to head with battery-based powertrains in electric cars, as long as the hydrogen is available.

“Both have their advantages, but the fuel cell has an advantage of a very quick refill,” Stabenow told Design News. “To fill a hydrogen tank takes minutes. It’s very comparable to a conventional internal combustion car, whereas the battery has a very long recharge time.”

Indeed, the practical business case for fuel cells is emerging with greater clarity than ever before. In January, GM and Honda announced the auto industry’s first manufacturing joint venture to produce hydrogen fuel cells. The two automakers have already made equal investments totaling $85 million in the joint venture, and plan to start mass production of the fuel cell packs by 2020. In the process, they’ve already accumulated more than 2,200 patents between them.

Stabenow says that the oft-repeated claims of costly fuel cell stack are old news. One of the big cost factors – the presence of ultra-expensive platinum in the catalysts – is changing. Over the past 10 years, platinum content has dropped from 90 g to 40 g to 15 g in three generations of fuel cell products, she said.

“Going from 90 to 15 g of platinum in 10 years is a dramatic reduction,” she told us. “That translates very quickly to actual dollars.”

The cost reductions are raising hopes inside GM, which built its first fuel-cell-powered vehicle, the 7,100-lb Electrovan, back in 1966. Stabenow said that GM material scientists have also cut the cost of the plates used in the stack by employing a lower-cost grade of stainless steel. The goal is to combine those lower material costs with the economies of scale of a high-volume manufacturing plant, and drive the expenses down even further.

“We’re vetting that technology very early,” Stabenow told us. “So we are able to ‘trial’ it on actual manufacturing-intent equipment to show that this stuff can be made.”

Moreover, GM has moved its fuel cell program team from New York to Pontiac, MI to be closer to the company’s engine and transmission programs, the better to capitalize on knowledge in those quarters. Ultimately, the company plans to bring its technology out in a production car, but it’s not yet saying when.

None of this is unfamiliar territory for Stabenow, who holds an M.S. in materials science from Ohio State University, served as a metallurgical engineer at GM’s Flint transmission plant and, later, as an engine materials engineer at GM’s Livonia engine plant. She has also held senior roles in manufacturing, giving her a practical view of production realities.

That’s partly why she’s convinced that there’s an important role waiting for fuel cells in the near future. “This isn’t a science project,” she told us. “Every person who has visited our lab has been surprised. They always say, ‘We didn’t know you were this close to manufacturing.’”

Driving the Future of Automotive Design. Federal mandates and environmental concerns have put fuel efficiency on the map for 2025. The automotive conference, held during Advanced Design & Manufacturing , March 29-30, 2017, in Cleveland, investigates lightweighting, the art and science that is lifting the pressure off automotive manufacturers. Learn about this trend's future and find out how new advances in lightweighting parts and materials can help you deliver the cars of the future. Register today!

Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 33 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and autos.

About the Author(s)

Charles Murray

Charles Murray is a former Design News editor and author of the book, Long Hard Road: The Lithium-Ion Battery and the Electric Car, published by Purdue University Press. He previously served as a DN editor from 1987 to 2000, then returned to the magazine as a senior editor in 2005. A former editor with Semiconductor International and later with EE Times, he has followed the auto industry’s adoption of electric vehicle technology since 1988 and has written extensively about embedded processing and medical electronics. He was a winner of the Jesse H. Neal Award for his story, “The Making of a Medical Miracle,” about implantable defibrillators. He is also the author of the book, The Supermen: The Story of Seymour Cray and the Technical Wizards Behind the Supercomputer, published by John Wiley & Sons in 1997. Murray’s electronics coverage has frequently appeared in the Chicago Tribune and in Popular Science. He holds a BS in engineering from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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