14 Engineers Who Are Transforming the Auto Industry

Here are 14 engineers who are responsible for some of the auto industry’s most innovative work, from batteries and fuel cells to autonomous cars and carbon composites.

It could be argued that no engineers in the history of the auto industry have faced the challenges that today’s engineers do.

The current crop of engineers is teaching cars to drive themselves. They’re replacing gasoline with electricity. They’re replacing steel with composites. They’re looking for ways to boost fuel efficiency, cut emissions, and reduce driver distraction. And at the same time, they’re integrating phones, video and glitzy new electronic displays into vehicles.

Here, we offer 14 profiles of automotive engineers who are doing that amazing work. Our top engineers include experts in autonomous driving, child safety, aerodynamics, fuel cells, materials, batteries, software, sensors, and much more.

To be sure, the auto industry employs tens of thousands of engineers who are doing brilliant work. The following group is really just a snapshot of a select few who are engaged in groundbreaking developments, not only at the OEM level, but among the suppliers, as well.

Here, then, are our 14:

Mike Aljamal (General Motors)

 Battery Validation

Curtis Chauvin  (LG Chem) –

 EV Battery Packaging

Andrew Christensen (Nissan) – 

Vehicle Automation

Kelley Clark (Ford) – 

Voice of the Customer

Don Federico (Toyota) – 

Vehicle Autonomy

David Fischer (Fiat Chrysler)

Aerodynamics

Mike Keaveney (Analog Devices) – 

Radar Sensors

Charan Lota (Toyota) –

Invention

Andrew Lund (Toyota) – 

Fuel Cells

Jennifer Pelky (Toyota) – 

Child Safety

Jonathon Ratliff (Nissan) – 

EV Battery Performance

Nathan Saliga (Fiat Chrysler) – 

Automotive Test

Mark Voss (General Motors) – 

Carbon Fiber Composites

Marissa West (General Motors)

Noise and Vibration

Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 34 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.  

Mike Aljamal: Validating the Future of EV Batteries

Mike Aljamal wants to bring EVs to the mainstream and make them profitable for GM.

GM battery pack validation engineer, Mike Aljamal: “We’re setting the cornerstone for all the knowledge in this company for years and years to come.” (Image source: General Motors)

The irony of Mike Aljamal’s career path is not only that he’s developing batteries for electric cars, but that he’s in the auto industry at all.

Aljamal, educated as a chemical engineer and material scientist, originally saw himself as a petroleum engineer. “As I went through chemical engineering, I knew my work was going to be in refineries, and probably at Shell or Exxon Mobil,” he recalled recently.

He knew wrong, however. At a 2014 career fair at his alma mater, the University of California-Berkeley, Aljamal’s career took an unexpected detour. During a sit-down with a General Motors engineer, Aljamal was shocked–not only by the amount of science and technology in vehicle development, but also by GM’s commitment to electrification. “That discussion with a GM engineer got my attention,” he said. After visiting GM’s Tech Center in Warren, MI, he says, his mind was changed. “It was an easy call after that. I made the decision that GM was my future.”

Indeed, the man who had once seen himself as a member of the petroleum industry was now on a path to free GM of its century-long commitment to oil. And he couldn’t have been more enthusiastic about it.

Today, Aljamal serves as a GM battery pack validation engineer–a key role, given the company’s plan to roll out two more all-new EVs in the next 18 months and 20 more by 2023. In that role, he tests batteries for electric vehicles in the US and China, ensuring the quality and structural integrity of the packs.

The role is a challenging one, Aljamal says, because lithium-ion vehicle batteries don’t have the century-long history that internal combustion engines have. In fact, many of the first-generation lithium-ion packs are still on the road today, which is why accelerated testing techniques still play a big role.

“We have about five years of data from the Volt 1 and less than two years of data from the Volt 2,” he said. “It’s not a lot of data to rely on. That’s why you have to think outside the box and rely on the team to predict all the failure modes and to make sure that you test correctly.”

Aljamal learned his craft from the bottom up, starting as a structural design engineer on battery packs after joining the company in 2015. There, he was able to use his prior internship experience as a metallurgist in the aircraft industry, but largely unable to apply his educational background in chemical engineering. It was, he says, more like being a mechanical engineer than a chemical engineer.

Still, he was strongly drawn to the new role, in part because of the transformational feel of his group. “When I got here in 2015, the battery group was a very small group,” he recalled. “Basically, we were operating like a start-up company.”

Now, his goals are lofty, he says. He wants to help GM cut the manufacturing costs and improve the recharge times of its EV batteries, so that customers will one day charge their batteries as easily as they now fill up with gas. By doing so, he hopes to help GM sell EVs for a profit and ultimately bring electrification to the mainstream.

Those are the goals that drew him away from the petroleum industry in the first place, he said. “We’re setting the cornerstone for all the knowledge in this company for years and years to come,” he told us. “That’s the significance of the work I’m doing. It’s what innovation is all about.” 

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Curtis Chauvin: Packing More Battery Power in Less Space

LG Chem’s Curtis Chauvin is developing low-profile battery packs that “regular people can afford.”

Design release engineer Curtis Chauvin of LG Chem: “Everything comes from the cell.” (Image source: LG Chem Michigan Inc. Tech Center)

Curtis Chauvin’s goal is to make his work invisible to the driver.

Chauvin, a design release engineer for EV batteries at LG Chem, knows as well as anyone how challenging that task is. With prospective electric car customers demanding more range, and batteries growing correspondingly larger, the task of designing a battery pack that doesn’t intrude on the vehicle’s trunk or cabin is…well, almost impossible.

But Chauvin is making it happen. “A big thing that will help us appeal to more people is to create a packaging envelope that is less noticeable to the driver,” he told Design News. “We want it to be under the vehicle–a low-profile pack. And we want to get to the point where those kinds of packs are in vehicles that regular people can afford.”

Some automakers are already developing such packs, he says. The Tesla Model S and Audi e-Tron, due out later this year, have made advances in battery packaging. But those vehicles are bigger and costlier, he says.

To do it in a smaller, lower-cost, entry-level vehicle is a greater challenge, he says, but it can be done. LG Chem knows this segment of the market, having worked with GM on the long-range, lithium-ion battery pack for the Chevy Bolt.

The key to making it happen lies in the battery’s cells, Chauvin says. Aspect ratios of today’s cells are changing, allowing engineers to arrange them in configurations that take up less space. The new shapes enable engineers to optimize mass, volume, cost, and even the arrangement of cooling systems. In some cases, the cells can be placed in low-profile modules underneath the car.

“Everything comes from the cell,” Chauvin said. “It helps us in terms of versatility. And it’s allowing the voice of the customer to dictate and decide where everything should go.”

Chauvin hopes that next-generation battery packs will be the key to wider adoption of electric cars. “The big goal is to appeal to more drivers and consumers–not just early adopters,” he said.

For Chauvin, the ability to contribute to such advances is a dream come true. A decade ago, he was working as a truck driver, tinkering with electronics on the side and poring over electric vehicle blogs in his spare time. “I’d get stoked about the latest electric cars and geek out over their specs,” he recalled.

Eventually, his obsession with EVs led to the discovery of a new electric-drive vehicle engineering curriculum at Wayne State University in Detroit, which was supported in part by funding from the US Department of Energy. Chauvin enrolled, earning a bachelor’s degree. He then took a job at LG Chem’s Michigan Inc. Tech Center, where he worked on lithium-ion chemistries for 12V starter batteries. At the same time, he continued his education at night, earning a master’s degree in electric-drive vehicle engineering.

Today, he serves on the mechanical pack and validation team that’s working on next-gen lithium-ion batteries for EVs and plug-in hybrids. He won’t say who his customers are, but he looks forward to test drives of that next-generation battery. “That will be the ultimate geek-out moment,” he said.

In the meantime, his goal is to continue to shrink the battery’s packaging and make it appeal to a broader segment of the market. “We want low profile,” he told us. “Eventually, we want vehicle designers to be able to use the space that used to be taken up by the battery.” 

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Andrew Christensen: Delivering the Message – What Driving Assistance Is…And Isn’t

Nissan engineer Andrew Christensen has the task of communicating the realities of vehicle automation.

Nissan engineer Andrew Christensen on the company’s ProPilot Assist: “We clearly try to communicate that it’s not driving. Driving is a very different and involved task.” (Image source: Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.)

The paradox of automated driving is that while it has the potential to save tens of thousands of lives per year, it can be dangerously misunderstood.

That’s where Andrew Christensen comes in. Christensen is the point man for Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. in its effort to help drivers understand automated vehicles. He forms and delivers the messages.

“It’s about communicating at the customer level–what the system does and what it doesn’t do, what its limitations are,” he explained recently. “There are examples in the field of other manufacturers who haven’t been as careful, and people have misunderstood what their system does, and they’ve gotten into trouble.”

To head off such “trouble,” Christensen brings to bear a deep understanding of the technology. He helped validate Nissan’s well-known ProPilot Assist automated driving system, oversaw the company’s participation in US Department of Transportation research, sat on NHTSA-sponsored committees on automated vehicles, and served on the SAE J3016 Task Force that defined levels of driving automation.

“We clearly try to communicate that it’s not driving,” he told us. “Driving is a very different and involved task.”In his task as communicator, Christensen synthesizes that knowledge into a coherent message. And he does so successfully. When asked, he explains what ProPilot Assist can do: It sees highway lanes; navigates stop-and-go traffic; sets vehicle speed; and monitors distance to the car ahead. It can even accelerate, brake, and steer in certain scenarios. But he’s also clear on another matter: It can’t drive for you.

Crafting the Message

To communicate that message, Christensen has to start inside Nissan. He works with product planning, product safety, marketing, and legal. He ensures that owner’s manuals, quick reference guides, and video materials explain it correctly. He trains the trainers, who train the dealers, who deliver the message to customers.

But there are challenges to successful penetration of that message. The biggest of those is public discourse and media imagery, in which self-driving cars are discussed as if they’re already here. “There are huge advancements out there in vehicles,” he said. “But most of those are fleet-type vehicles–specialty-type situations in which the cars are still extremely expensive. People should not be confused by that. The vehicles at their dealer will not be at that level for many years to come.”

Internally and externally, he continues to warn people that the old adage, “eyes on the road, hands on the wheel,” still applies. “In our system, the driver is still engaged,” he told us.

Christensen acknowledges that there’s an irony to his role as a proponent of a technology that will one day evolve into the self-driving car. He loves cars, he says, and especially loves driving. “When I was five years old, I was the ‘gofer’ for my dad while he worked on cars,” Christensen said. “I worked on cars, on the family car, all through my childhood and through high school.”

As he approached his college years, Christensen’s affection for all things automotive continued. When he read in Car & Driver about General Motors Institute (now called Kettering University), he applied. He graduated four years later with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. He later became one of the school’s first co-op students to work at the Nissan Technical Center. Over the years at Nissan, he worked in design engineering, underbody layout, upper body layout, vehicle program management, technology planning, active safety, and concept vehicles. He even briefly raced cars during the 1990s.

“I describe myself as a gearhead and people ask me, ‘Why are you working on automated driving?,” he said. “But I’ve always been into technology, so part of me fits in well here. Automated driving is the leading edge.”

Indeed, automated driving is the leading edge, and Christensen is fine with that as long as consumers understand its limitations. “It’s an assist system and it’s not to be interpreted as some kind of self-driving system,” he said. “For me, it’s all about relaying that message.” 

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Kelley Clark: Ford’s Voice of the Customer

Ford engineer Kelley Clark listens to customers and helps engineer changes on next-generation vehicles.

Ford engineer Kelley Clark: “It’s a good feeling when you’re able to do the right thing for the customer.” (Image source: Ford Motor Co.)

Anyone who has flung open their car’s driver door, only to be splashed by rainwater trickling from the roof, would appreciate Kelley Clark.

Clark, a vehicle integration manager at Ford Motor Co., had heard rainwater complaints from too many customers. So she took her case to the company’s body team. “We had to make sure the flow of water was up and away from the vehicle, rather than through the grille, or—in a worse case—close enough to the A-pillar so that when you opened the door, the water drops on you,” she recalled recently. Such efforts on behalf of the customer aren’t unusual for Clark. A big part of her job is to listen to owners through surveys and customer clinics, look for larger patterns in their issues, and then take action.

And therein lies the other part of her professional existence. When she takes action, she brings together team members from body, styling, powertrain, or elsewhere to fix the issues on Ford’s next-generation vehicles (hence the term “integration” in her title).

In many cases, Clark is right in the middle of the fix. On the rainwater issue, Clark and her staff (she has a worldwide team of 200) worked with Ford’s body team to find solutions. Their effort included the use of CAD tools to predict the flow of rainwater and the development of tests to better understand how the vehicle’s geometry contributed to the problem. The team even used spray bottles and pipettes to track every droplet of water as it traveled the contours of the vehicles.

When the problem was identified, Clark and her team switched their focus, working with Ford’s design studio to ensure a solution for future generations of vehicles. “We were able to create a surface geometry above the window to make sure that when the water drops, it drops in a safe spot—either on the molding or out and away from the vehicle,” Clark told us. The solution, which involved geometry changes of just a few millimeters, was implemented on several vehicles, including the Ford Explorer and Escape.

‘The Right Thing for the Customer’

The best part of her job, Clark says, is that she interfaces with so many of the company’s engineering specialties. In one recent case, she even had to get a commercial driver’s license as part of an effort to improve the powertrain cooling of Ford’s pickup trucks. Customers, she said, had expressed concern about overheating of super duty trucks while towing large loads up steep grades. “People get very upset about that sort of thing,” she recalled recently. “So we brought the team together and showed them why we wanted to make the change.”

Clark secured a commercial driver’s license so she would be permitted to tow 10,000-lb loads. Then she towed the loads up steep grades in hot environments to test the vehicles. To implement improvements, she worked with the powertrain team on the cooling systems and with the body exterior teams on the styling of the grilles. “We looked at every hole in that grille to make sure that when we were towing large loads over very aggressive hills, we had the right amount of air coming through the system,” she said.

Clark describes it as one of her favorite efforts. “We changed the cooling system to support some of the driving our customers do when they want to tow heavy trailers,” she added.

Such efforts, however, weren’t what Clark imagined herself doing when she graduated from the University of Michigan before joining Ford 26 years ago. Her bachelor’s degree was in bioengineering, and she followed that with a master’s in bioengineering at Wayne State University. “I grew up thinking I was going to be in the medical field, working with medical devices,” she recalled.

When Clark joined Ford as a safety engineer working with crash dummies, however, her career path changed. Within three years, she had switched to vehicle engineering. A series of assignments on the Expedition, Navigator, and Escape followed, and Clark’s comfort and appreciation of vehicle engineering grew. When she later earned an MBA from the London School of Business, she refused to leave Ford.

“Everyone at London Business School asked, ‘Why are you going back to Ford?’” she said. “They thought I should be going into finance. But I told them, ‘There’s nowhere else I’d rather be. That’s my home.’”

Her reward, Clark says, is that Ford gives her the opportunity to engineer change. “The best part is when you work with the folks that ultimately make the decision, and they have the ‘aha’ moment, and they say, ‘Let’s do it,’” she said. “It’s a good feeling when you’re able to do the right thing for the customer.”

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Don Federico: Bringing Safety to Automated Vehicles

Toyota engineer Don Federico is focusing his efforts on the decade-long runup to Level 5 autonomous driving.

Toyota engineer Don Federico: “There are 36,000 traffic fatalities a year (in the US). We have a real opportunity to cut that number way down.” (Image source: Toyota Motor Corp.)

During a recent Society of Automotive Engineers technical session, Toyota engineer Don Federico took exception to the direction of the discussion on automated driving.

The discussion, he thought, veered a bit too much toward the popular notions of luxury and comfort. “The other OEMs were focused on the convenience of automation–tilting the seat rearward and having the car take you to your cabin in Minnesota,” Federico recalled recently. “But we don’t see it as a convenience factor. We see it as providing an extra layer of safety.”

Indeed, Toyota’s approach to automated driving is different than the rest of the industry’s in a significant way. It’s more about safety, but especially so during the decade-long runup to SAE Level 5.

That’s why Federico, as executive manager for vehicle performance and development, is helping spearhead Toyota’s drive toward the creation of the Mobility Teammate. In the halls of Toyota, Mobility Teammate isn’t just another catchy buzz-term to describe automated driving. It’s a genuine philosophical difference.

That philosophical difference lies in Toyota’s belief that to get to Level 5, automakers first need to go through Levels 2, 3, and 4…safely. That’s going to be a challenge, Toyota believes, because each new automated driving feature has the potential to siphon off a little bit more driver attention. As a result, drivers gradually tend to focus forward, and fail to check their blind spots and rearview mirrors as often.

“Our hypothesis is that as we move closer to Level 5, the driver’s attention will reduce more and more and more,” Federico told us. That’s a big problem, he said, because in Levels 3 and 4, drivers are supposed to be ready to take over under certain conditions.

Building a Bond

That’s where Mobility Teammate comes in. Toyota believes the car and driver should function as friends sharing a common purpose. In essence, the goal is for the car to monitor the surrounding world and communicate in a way that endows the driver with what Toyota calls “anticipatory behavior.”

To understand what that means, it’s best to first consider how drivers of conventional cars exhibit anticipatory behavior. In congested or aggressive traffic, for example, most take their foot off the gas and grip the steering wheel a little tighter. They prepare to act. That’s anticipatory.

Similarly, Toyota wants Mobility Teammate to be the link to the anticipatory mode in automated driving conditions. And it wants to do that through human-machine interfaces (HMIs). “Our idea is that if we know those scenarios are happening, we can create HMIs to alert the driver to those scenarios,” Federico said. “We can tell them the things that are happening outside the vehicle, and they can take anticipatory behavior and potentially take over.”

According to Federico, the goal is to keep improving the HMIs, thus making the “takeover time” shorter and shorter. To make that happen, Toyota knows that it must build a bond between car and driver. “We know we need to build trust,” Federico said. “And hopefully, these HMIs will keep a certain level of readiness for the takeover, so that the customer is comfortable using the system.”

Those concepts—bonds, readiness, and trust—are components of a discussion about safety, not convenience, Federico stated. “Everyone wants to talk about the dream of autopilot,” he said. “But that’s not our dream at Toyota. Our dream is an accident-free society.”

Federico understands the industry’s propensity to view automated driving through the lens of comfort and convenience, however, because he felt the same way a few years ago. When he started his career at Toyota 15 years ago, Federico held a BSME and a master’s in systems engineering from Rochester Institute of Technology. He was working in vehicle HVAC systems. There, development was all about the business case and the relationship with the customer.

Those beliefs were reinforced as Federico’s career evolved and he became responsible for more aspects of vehicle performance. A proponent of Toyota’s “waku-doki” (heart racing) design principles, Federico was skeptical about the business case for automated driving. Most car buyers, he reasoned, didn’t want a machine to do their driving. “Driving isn’t hard,” he said recently. “Most customers don’t mind driving. And some actually enjoy it.”

Watching the evolution of self-driving technology over the past few years has changed his mind, however. The emergence of crash avoidance, lane keeping, automated cruise, and other features has laid a foundation for big advancements, he noted. “As the technology has progressed, I’ve realized that the business case is the opportunity to deliver true safety gains,” he said. “There are 36,000 traffic fatalities a year (in the US). We have a real opportunity to cut that number way down.”

To make that happen, however, Federico believes that automakers must first build a bond and convince consumers to trust the technology. Only then, he says, can automakers build the business case. “Hopefully, customers will be willing to pay for it,” he told us. “And we want to give them that option.”

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David Fischer: Boosting Fuel Efficiency by Adding Intelligence to an Air Dam

Fiat Chrysler engineer David Fischer spearheaded an effort to bring a smart air dam to the Ram 1500 pickup truck.

 

Fiat Chrysler engineer David Fischer led a team that created a smart, retractable air dam. (Source: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles)

On the desk in his office, David Fischer has a photo of four men in suits, on their hands and knees on the concrete floor at the Detroit Auto Show, peering under the front end of a Ram 1500 pickup truck. Their intent is simple: They’re examining the new active air dam that Fiat Chrysler announced earlier this year.

Whenever he glances at the photo, Fischer takes joy from it. “It feels good when you see competitors crawling around, looking under our vehicle, trying to get a view of the device,” he told Design News.Indeed, it should feel good. Fischer, a development lead for aerodynamic devices at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, spent three years breathing life into that air dam. The company estimates that it’s now worth about two-thirds of a mile-per-gallon in fuel efficiency. “It’s the single biggest contributor to positive aerodynamics on the vehicle,” Fischer said.

In an earlier era, of course, engineers might never have thought to add such a device. But today, with truck makers battling to get a leg up on each other in the fuel efficiency wars, an extra mile per gallon is a godsend. And achieving it with a device that causes competitors to scratch their heads and crawl on the floor makes it that much sweeter.

To fully understand Fischer’s solution, however, it’s best to first look at the conventional air dam. The air dam–a five-foot-wide plastic shield that fits beneath the front bumper–helps reduce drag by pushing airflow down so it doesn’t get hung up in the undercarriage of the vehicle. While conventional fixed air dams boost aerodynamics, however, they can only go so far. If the air dam is too big, it can scrape against curbs, concrete parking blocks, or other ground-based obstacles. “A fixed air dam is limited because it has to meet ground-clearance and approach-angle requirements,” Fischer said.

An Active Alternative

That’s where the Ram 1500’s active air dam comes in. Fischer endowed the active version with a motor, clutch, linkages, and an actuator to deploy or retract the air dam.

The strategy behind it is relatively simple: When the vehicle hits higher speeds, the device deploys, pushing airflow down in a laminar stream toward the rear axle. When the truck slows to 18 mph, the air dam swings backward, stowing itself higher up. That way, the device is out of harm’s way during slow-speed operations, such as parking. All of this happens invisibly, thanks to a microcontroller that talks to the truck’s powertrain control module (PCM) and independently decides when to deploy.

The idea for the device originated with the FCA’s aerodynamics team, which first did computational fluid dynamics (CFD) modeling to determine how much fuel it could save. When the CFD models pointed to significant savings, the company’s leadership gave it the go-ahead and assigned it to Fischer.

For Fischer and his team, the design was no simple task. Truck underbodies are notorious for being abused, which meant the team needed to use robust parts and test them thoroughly. Moreover, packaging was a challenge because the air dam was curved and took up a surprising amount of underhood space. Finally, there was the issue of designing for the unexpected.

“Our leadership team was adamant that if a customer couldn’t avoid an orange cone or some other type of obstacle in the road, they didn’t want the driver stranded by a damaged air dam,” Fischer said. “So we needed to have a breakaway feature, a clutch mechanism, to keep it from being severely damaged.”

The team spent close to a year verifying the design on FCA’s proving grounds, as well as in cold-weather tests in northern Michigan and hot-weather trips to the Nevada desert.

For Fischer, the effort was a natural extension of a career that has evolved around the creation of aerodynamic mechanisms. A 2005 mechanical engineering graduate of the University of Michigan, he was responsible early in his career for the development of active grille shutters that are used on almost all Fiat Chrysler vehicles today.

Those experiences make him a valuable engineer in an era when fuel efficiency is king. That’s ironic, he says, because most consumers will never even see his fuel-saving air dam. “It would be nice to have people know about this device,” he told us. “But the truth is, we don’t want the customer to ever have to think about it.”

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Mike Keaveney: ADI Engineer Sees Bigger Role for Radar in Self-Driving Cars

Analog Devices’ engineer Mike Keaveney is spearheading development of “imaging radar” technology.

Analog Devices engineer Mike Keaveney is developing a radar IC that might one day have the imaging resolution of a Lidar system. (Image source: Analog Devices, Inc.)

Today, most of the auto industry assumes that LiDAR will be the sensing backbone of future autonomous cars.

That won’t be the case if Mike Keaveney has his way, however. Keaveney, a developer of a technology called “imaging radar,” foresees a day when radar will be able to recognize objects on a par with LiDAR. And he believes radar will also see through bad weather conditions–rain, fog, and snow–in a way that LiDAR and cameras cannot.

“The problem is that when you get adverse weather, LiDAR’s range is significantly reduced,” Keaveney told Design News. “But radar is almost immune to that. It does not degrade by a significant amount in bad weather.”

Keaveney, an engineering director and fellow at Analog Devices, Inc., has spearheaded development of a 77/79 GHz imaging radar chip that is already turning heads inside the auto industry–not only at the Tier Ones, but also at the OEM level. The chip, known internally as digiMMIC, employs micro-Doppler frequencies that enable it to identify the signature of an object in its path.

That’s a big step forward for the automotive community because up to now, radar systems haven’t been able to do that. “Today’s radars know there’s an object in front of them, but they don’t know what that object is,” Keaveney told us. “But we’re now moving to much higher levels of perception, where the radar will be able to identify: Is it a car? Is it a bicycle? Is it a pedestrian?”

LiDAR is already good at recognizing such objects, of course, using a point-cloud approach to imaging. But LiDAR can’t do some of the things that radar can do today, such as seeing around corners and comprehending velocities of moving objects. Moreover, LiDAR cannot see through the aforementioned bad weather, showing degradation of about 80% in rain, snow and fog, Keaveney said. By comparison, radar’s imaging abilities would degrade by only about 20% in bad weather, he added.

For that reason, Keaveney sees radar eventually stepping up as the backbone sensing technology for autonomous cars. LiDAR won’t go away, he says. It will always serve as one of the sensing modalities for SAE Level 3, 4, and 5 vehicles. But he believes future self-driving cars will use a “multiplicity” of imaging radar chips, and those chips will be the vehicle’s main sensing technology.

A New Role for Electronics

Ironically, Keaveney says he never set out to create a technology to compete with LiDAR. A long-time developer of ICs for the communications industry, he initially had more modest ambitions. “When we started this, the autonomous car was a long way out,” he said. “We just asked, ‘What would we need to do to make the highest-performing radar for automotive?’ We were thinking more of ADAS (advanced driver assistance systems) at that stage.”

Nor did Keaveney, who holds 11 patents, foresee himself as a member of the automotive industry. He earned a BE degree (equivalent to a BSEE) from University College in Dublin, Ireland, and a master’s degree in computer engineering from the University of Limerick before taking a job in the 1980s designing ICs for GSM phones. “The automotive industry back then was all about mechanical–diesel engines and gas engines,” he told us. “Electronics was few and far between in cars back then.”

Still, he now recognizes the push for the autonomous car in the auto industry and sees the enormous potential there for a technology like imaging radar, which can help make it happen. “Our ultimate goal is for this to get the resolution that you can get with LiDAR,” Keaveney said. “And we have a roadmap that we think will get us there in a few years.”

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Charan Lota: ‘Kaizen’ Philosophy Inspires Engineer to Invent

Toyota engineer Charan Lota has a long list of patents in mechanical and electronic engineering.

Charan Lota, chief engineer for connected technologies at Toyota, has earned 35 patents. (Image source: Toyota Motor Corp.)

When he was a mechanical engineering student at the University of Michigan two decades ago, Charan Lota says he “struggled mightily” with his few classes in electronics.

That, of course, isn’t unusual. Many mechanical engineering students dislike the Boolean logic and Laplace transforms that underlie introductory electronic theory.

What’s surprising, however, is that Lota has since built a career atop those electronic principles. Two decades after graduating with a mechanical engineering degree and starting his career as an automotive wheel designer, Lota is now chief engineer for connected technologies at Toyota Motor North America.

Today, he is responsible for Toyota’s next-generation multimedia platforms. In recent years, he has also served as a key player in Toyota’s move to color instrument panel displays and capacitive touch screens. “Moving to electronics was a big leap for me because I gave up my comfort zone in the mechanical world,” Lota recently told Design News. “But looking back, it was one of the best decisions I ever made.”

Indeed, the decision has paid dividends for Lota and for Toyota. Today, he’s known around Toyota not only as a chief engineer, but also as a prolific inventor, having multiple patents in the mechanical and electronic arenas. His patents have run the gamut of everything from sliding armrests to electronic vehicle calendars to camera-based seat-adjustment systems.

The lack of any formal electronics engineering training has never troubled him. That’s because Lota feels that Toyota is a place where innovators can thrive, whatever their background.

“Any time we do a development, we always go out and talk to the customer,” he told us. “And we ask, ‘What’s wrong? What’s broken?’ And then we fix it.”

A Philosophy of Improvement

Fixing things is a process that comes naturally to Lota. Growing up, his family owned a construction company, and he was always building, fixing, and solving problems, he said. “My father was always tinkering with cars, so we would get in there together and change the alternator or the belts, and figure out how to repair things,” he recalled. “When a vacuum cleaner or washing machine broke, we’d figure out how to repair that, too.”

So today, when Toyota wants him to innovate and fix things, Lota feels like he’s in his ideal setting. Moreover, Toyota gives him the means to make it happen. “When we make a prototype, it costs not tens of thousands, but hundreds of thousands of dollars to build and test,” he explained. “When somebody has your back and gives you the budget to try out new ideas, that’s huge.”

That philosophy—Toyota calls it “Kaizen” (continuous improvement)—is what inspired Lota to move to electronics in the first place. At the time, he had already spent eight years designing instrument panels and was looking for a new challenge. “I was starting to interface with the electronics people, and I could see that what they were doing was cool,” he said. “So after eight years, it was a career shift that needed to happen.”

By that time, Lota was starting to feel more confident about his abilities with electronics. In his years of designing instrument panels, he had been exposed to airbags, ECUs, and LEDs, and had developed a good feel for digital communications. “That’s when it all began to light up for me,” he said.

When he made the change, Lota hit the ground running, despite his college struggles with electronics. He and his new teammates quickly identified a need for Toyota to switch from monochromatic to color displays in its North American vehicles. His group proposed the idea to Toyota’s Japanese management and was startled to hear they liked it.

“They said, ‘Now, go develop it,’” he recalled. “And there was this sense of panic that came over us, like, ‘Can we really do this?’”

The panic, however, gave way to confidence once they started building prototypes. Soon, they were adding other features, including capacitive-touch displays and wireless charging for customer’s cell phones. “Once we had it going, there was this sense of, ‘Wow, we can really do this. This is the right move,’” he recalled.

Indeed, it was. Toyota introduced the idea on the Avalon sedan in 2006, and it soon spread to other parts of the company.

Since that time, Lota has continued to apply his knack for innovation in cockpit designs for the Sienna, Tacoma, Tundra, and Sequoia vehicles. Over the years, his list of patented ideas has climbed to at least 35.

For Lota, that’s no big deal—just a matter of fixing things. “That’s where a lot of the patents happen—when we figure out ways to do things that we didn’t see before,” he said. “To me, that’s fun. It’s why I really enjoy coming to work every day.”

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Andrew Lund : Delivering Hydrogen Power to Heavy-Duty Trucks

Toyota engineer Andrew Lund is laying the foundation for the company’s “hydrogen society” by building Class 8 heavy-duty fuel cell trucks.

Toyota engineer Andrew Lund: “We believe that hydrogen fuel cell technology is the best clean energy that can be carried on board a vehicle.” (Image source: Toyota Motor Corp.)

If you want to see the future of the automobile, Andrew Lund says you need to look no further than his 80,000-lb, fully loaded, heavy-duty truck.

The truck, which cranks out 670 HP and 1,325 lb-ft of torque, isn’t what most people imagine when they think of zero-emission vehicles. But make no mistake, this truck is zero emission. And Toyota Motor Corp., which retrofitted it to run off two hydrogen fuel cells, does see it as the future.

“If we can do a sedan or a light-duty vehicle or a Class 8 heavy-duty truck with this technology, then we will have proven that it’s right for any motor size,” said Lund, who serves as chief engineer of the heavy-duty truck project, called Project Portal.

These days, the truck is doing what trucks do–it’s pulling cargo. Every day, it moves goods from the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach to surrounding rail yards and warehouses. Most of its trips total about 200 miles.

Power for the truck comes from two hydrogen fuel cells–the same kind used in Toyota’s Mirai fuel cell car. In essence, the truck is electric. The fuel cells use the hydrogen to produce the electric current that powers its drive motors. As a result, its only emission is water vapor. Unlike an electric car, however, it doesn’t need a big battery. A 12-kWh battery–about one-sixth the size of the battery in a Tesla Model S sedan–stores the charge.

Hydrogen Society

Toyota sees the truck as one piece of its grand plan for a hydrogen society. Ultimately, the company believes that hydrogen could play a role in pulling cargo or powering cars that need to make long trips, largely because its re-fueling time would be no different than gasoline’s. “We believe that hydrogen fuel cell technology is the best clean energy that can be carried on board a vehicle,” Lund told us. “Batteries are heavy and they take a long time to recharge.”

The knock on hydrogen, of course, is its lack of infrastructure. But Lund says Toyota is working on that, too. Last November, the automaker announced that it is building the world’s first megawatt-scale, carbonate, fuel cell power generation plant in the Port of Long Beach. The plant, known as Tri-Gen, will generate approximately 2.35 MW of electricity and 1.2 tons of hydrogen per day–enough to meet the daily driving needs of about 1,500 vehicles. It will come on line in 2020, Toyota says.

“We believe that once we are able to increase the volume of hydrogen, there will be a domino effect, where the economies of scale will make it more affordable,” Lund said. “And as it becomes more affordable, it will become the preferred technology for zero-emission vehicles.”

Lund believes that will eventually happen. He’s working with partners in California, where Toyota has already sold approximately 3,000 Mirai sedans, to increase the number and availability of hydrogen refueling stations. He’s also working with partners in the northeastern part of the US.

Lund’s role as a technology evangelist is a new one for him. A mechanical engineering graduate of the University of Michigan, he started with Toyota’s materials engineering department in paint and anti-corrosion in 1994 before eventually working his way up to chief engineer of the Sienna minivan program.

He plans to put his production vehicle experience to good use with the fuel cell truck program. In the future, he says, Toyota plans to build additional hydrogen fuel cell trucks. “We’re getting to the point where we need to scale it up,” he told us. “We want to look to the potential of commercialization.”

He knows that won’t come quickly. But he understands its long-range significance for Toyota. “When we announced the fuel cell heavy-duty truck last spring, the world took notice,” he said. “And the questions were asked: ‘What are you going to do next?’ That’s where I fit in. I’m doing what comes next.” 

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Jennifer PelkyMaking Autos Safer for Children

Toyota engineer Jennifer Pelky is on a mission to make child car seats safer.

Toyota safety engineer Jennifer Pelky: “In an ideal world, I’d love to see four out of four car seats installed correctly, instead of one out of four.” (Image source: Toyota Motor Corp.)

The moment that changed Jennifer Pelky’s life came when she was working as a co-op in the auto industry.

Pelky, at the time a mechanical engineering student at the University of Michigan, had already served a co-op rotation in noise, vibration, and harshness engineering. She liked it. Then, as part of her rotating responsibilities, she watched a 35-mph crash test.

Today, almost 20 years later, she still vividly remembers the moment. “Like a lot of people, I thought 35 mph didn’t sound that fast,” she recalled recently. “But when I saw it, I was struck by the amount of energy–the noise, the sound of the airbags, the sound of metal crunching, the condition of the vehicle afterwards.”

Pelky, turning to a senior engineer to express her horror, was surprised by his nonchalant response. “He said, ‘No, the vehicle did exactly what it was supposed to do.’”

From that point forward, she was hooked. “I knew that’s where I wanted to be,” she told Design News.Indeed, she did. Today, Pelky serves as a senior engineer for Toyota Motor Corp. in interior safety. Now a mother of two, she has taken those vivid recollections of crash energy and used them to fuel her passion for making vehicles safer–especially for children.

And her activities in that area are almost dizzying. She is a Toyota team leader in crashworthiness, a Certified Child Passenger Safety Technician, a national Toyota spokesperson for Toyota’s Buckle Up for Life campaign, and the vehicle manufacturer representative for the National Child Passenger Safety Board. As a certified safety technician, she also works with families on Saturdays and weekends to teach parents the right way to install car seats.

Her interest in child car seats evolved into one of the biggest parts of her professional life–especially after she discovered that three in four child car seats are installed incorrectly. She cites grim statistics–663 children were killed in crashes in the US in 2016, and approximately 35% of those were unrestrained–to underscore her belief in the need for improvements.

Her personal experience has also played a role in her mission. When she visited a baby store to buy a car seat for her first child a few years ago, she was surprised by how difficult it was to find a seat that fit tightly in her vehicle. “I brought a co-worker of mine, who was a certified safety technician,” she said. “And I thought: ‘If I’m having trouble finding a car seat to keep my child safe, then what is it like for the average customer?’”

In her design work, Pelky is trying to create better latch hardware to make it easier for parents to install car seats on their own. “We know from studies that when the lower anchors are within a certain depth, have good clearance around them, and don’t require a lot of force to attach, parents are 19 times more likely to get a secure attachment,” she said. And when the attachment is more secure, she stated, the seats are safer.

Thus far, Pelky’s efforts are helping. In 2016, Toyota had two of the industry’s first “good+” ratings for child anchors from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The 2016 Toyota Prius and the 2016 Lexus RX luxury both received that rating, which is the institute’s highest. And Pelky is expecting another “good+” for the new Toyota Camry.

Still, the industry’s state of the art isn’t where she’d like it to be. Part of the problem, she says, is lack of education. She’s appalled when she sees cars in drop-off lines at elementary schools, with seven-year-olds hopping out of the front seats. “We know that children need to be in rear seats until they’re 13, and we know they need to be in booster seats until they’re four-feet-nine-inches tall,” she said. “And that may not happen until they’re 10, 11, or even 12 years old.”

But the bigger problem is still the mis-installation of car seats. There, she says, there’s massive room for improvement. “We can do better,” she said. “In an ideal world, I’d love to see four out of four car seats installed correctly, instead of one out of four.”

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Jonathon Ratliff : Nissan Engineer Lays Plans for Continued Improvement of Leaf EV

Jonathon Ratliff helped Nissan spearhead its effort to boost the all-electric range of the Leaf while cutting its cost.

Jonathon Ratliff helped Nissan pack more functionality into the existing Leaf battery envelope without compromising its unblemished record for safety. (Source: Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.)

During his daily 50-mile roundtrip commute to his Detroit-area office in 2016, Jonathon Ratliff suddenly knew that Nissan’s all-electric Leaf had reached the tipping point.

“I’d driven a Leaf for seven years, and I realized that this was the car you could drive for 95% of your daily use,” Ratliff told Design News. “With that 2016 model, I found that I usually had 45-50 miles of range remaining when I’d come home to plug it in for a charge.”Ratliff has even more reason for confidence today. The 2018 version of the Leaf has again boosted its battery capacity from 30 kWh to 40 kWh and extended its range from 107 miles to 151 miles, while cutting its price to $29,990 (before incentives).

Ratliff, who serves as a senior manager for zero-emissions vehicle engineering for Nissan, recognizes the market potential of the Leaf because he has lived with it for much of his professional life. Over the past few years, he has helped spearhead the company’s effort to pack more functionality into the existing Leaf battery envelope, without compromising its unblemished record for safety.

Ratliff and his team accomplished those seemingly conflicting goals by managing a series of three major changes to Nissan’s battery pack engineering. First, they changed the lithium-ion cell chemistry from lithium manganese oxide (LMO) to nickel manganese cobalt (NMC). Then, they cut the number of battery modules in half, while increasing the number of cells in each module from four to eight. Finally, they maintained safety by jacking up the computing power of the pack’s battery management system. Doing so meant that they could keep better tabs on the cells, which were now more closely packed.

“The more data we can collect and the more information we have, the better the pack performs in terms of both life and safety,” Ratliff told us.

As a result, the new Leaf battery offers 33% more energy density at 20% less cost. At the same time, it continues its streak of 56 million cells on the road without a single safety incident, Ratliff said.

Such high-profile engineering achievements are a far cry from when Ratliff started after graduating from Michigan State University in 2005 with an electrical engineering degree. He launched his career with Nissan in electrical reliability, studying high-voltage safety and infrastructure compatibility. Prior to his design work on the Leaf, he evaluated instrument clusters and airbag modules. He then spent two years criss-crossing the country, making electrical power quality measurements and ensuring that the American electrical grid could reliably support cars like the Leaf. “It taught me that our electrical infrastructure is really quite good,” he said. “Although it’s fairly fragmented, it’s actually very robust compared to Japan or even Europe.”

While those years may have temporarily detoured him away from vehicle engineering, they also laid the groundwork for his subsequent move to the Leaf program. As a result, he’s now laying plans for the next version of the Leaf, due out soon. And the next Leaf, he says, will be even better.

That’s a bold prediction, given the fact that the Leaf is already the world’s all-time best-selling, highway-capable electric car in automotive history. But Ratliff says he’s confident it will happen. “We want to extend beyond what we’re doing now,” he told us. “We want to get more out of the technology while maintaining a value and price point that’s reasonable for an electric vehicle.”

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Nathan Saliga: Engineer’s Software Tool Improves Transmission Shift Quality

Engineer Nathan Saliga created a software tool that adjusts shift quality on the fly.

Nathan Saliga’s CLUTCH software tool enabled Fiat Chrysler to earn a best-in-class quality rating on its eight-speed transmission. (Image source: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles)

The inspiration behind Nathan Saliga’s innovation was simple.

Every morning, Saliga, a transmission calibration engineer for Fiat Chrysler, would sit down in front of his office computer and cull through mountains of transmission shift data. The sheer volume of it was often overwhelming, and the process was slow and tedious–sometimes taking 40 minutes or more.

So when Nathan Saliga’s “aha moment” arrived, it came as no surprise to him. “If you came in and stared at a bunch of squiggles on a screen every morning, you’d try to figure out a better way, too,” he told Design News.

Maybe so, but the difference between Saliga and others is that he actually found a better way. His solution is a software program called the Closed Loop Upshift Tool for Calibration Help (CLUTCH, for short). It plows through the data on its own in real time, enabling the transmission engineer to skip his morning ritual.

“It’s a neat tool that lets us visualize and calibrate shifts on the fly while you’re driving the vehicle, which is unique for us, because we previously had to do all that manually,” Saliga said.

The tool was employed in the development of the new Jeep Wrangler, which pairs an eight-speed transmission with a 2.2-liter engine. It helped Fiat Chrysler achieve a best-in-class rating for shift quality using the AVL global benchmarking standard.

The key to Saliga’s innovation was his knowledge of MATLAB, a numerical computing product with its own programming language. Saliga used MATLAB to create CLUTCH and then interface it to another commonly used program called INCA, which gathers the calibration data. During operation, the two programs work together, with INCA gathering the data while CLUTCH analyzes it. By using the two programs in that way, Fiat Chrysler was able to monitor the transmission’s shifts and then make changes in real time.

“The tool knows what the shift should look like, so it can make calibration adjustments and fix the shift if there’s an issue with it,” Saliga said.

For Saliga, the development of the CLUTCH tool was almost second nature. While earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at Michigan Tech University, Saliga frequently used MATLAB for homework projects. He did the same while earning a master’s degree in electrical engineering at Oakland University. And he did it again while doing so-called “rotations” to expose him to various engineering departments after joining Fiat Chrysler as an engineer. “Every rotation I did, I found some small project I could use MATLAB for,” he said.

Given his experience, Saliga’s decision to create a new tool was a natural one. “We’re always tasked with being innovative,” he said. “And I saw an opportunity to fully utilize all the data I was collecting because I was understandably upset about how much time it was taking to go through it all.”

The decision, however, produced benefits he didn’t expect. Shift quality was improved; the morning data rituals were eliminated; shift data was employed more effectively; and the process could suddenly be done in real time, which accelerated the calibration task. Moreover, Fiat Chrysler is now planning to use it in upcoming vehicle programs.

“When I started it, I had no idea it would go this far or work this well,” Saliga told us. “It was just going to be a tool to analyze shifts.”

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Mark Voss: GM Engineer Brings Carbon Fiber Composite to the Mainstream

Mark Voss of GM led a team that created a carbon fiber pickup truck box for the 2019 Sierra Denali.

GM engineer Mark Voss spearheaded an effort that brought a carbon fiber pickup truck box to the GMC Sierra. (Image source: General Motors)

Mark Voss knew the carbon fiber pickup truck box was a game-changer during testing in 2013.

The defining moment occurred on a hot August afternoon at GM’s Milford Proving Grounds, as a dozen engineers and technicians watched a Bobcat loader drop 1,500-lb loads of wood, concrete, and gravel into two pickup cargo boxes. One box was roll-formed steel; the other was a carbon fiber thermoplastic. The Bobcat would roll up alongside a box, hoist its load about six feet in the air, and then release it with a crash. After slamming about 30 loads into both boxes, the engineers gathered to examine them.

“We hosed the boxes down and every single person pointed at the carbon fiber box and said, ‘I want that one,’” Voss, GM’s engineering group manager for advanced structural composites, recalled recently. “It literally looked brand new, whereas the steel box, good as it was, was dented and scratched.”

Word quickly spread through GM’s engineering ranks. “Our senior management found out about it,” Voss told us. “A video of it made its way around the corporation in a matter of days.”

Addressing the Cost Issue 

The video, together with cost and engineering data, made for an easy choice. General Motors rolled out the new box, called CarbonPro, on the 2019 GMC Sierra Denali. The new cargo box, or truck bed, is an industry first. “It’s a revolutionary application,” Voss told us. “And not just for the auto industry. It’s revolutionary for the carbon fiber industry, as well.”

Indeed, the new cargo box represents a big change, both for GM and for the industry. At GM, its advantages are obvious. First, there’s the mass. The specific gravity of the carbon is 1.5, whereas steel is over 7. That difference translates to a 62-lb weight reduction when compared to its predecessor.

At the same time, it’s stronger. Even though the ultimate strength value of the composite sheet is lower than that of steel, engineers can add thickness to compensate, creating a final part with greater load-carrying capacity.

Finally, there’s the ability to produce variable thicknesses. On the Sierra, engineers were able to add thickness near the wheel wells and other areas, where greater strength was needed. That wouldn’t have been possible with steel, Voss said.

“It’s highly tunable,” he told us. “We’re able to get all the mass out and still make a bigger, stronger box in comparison to steel.”

In the long run, however, the CarbonPro’s biggest contribution may be its ability to bring carbon fiber composites to lower-cost, higher-volume production vehicles. To be sure, they’ve been used many times in the past for hoods, fenders, and other parts—but usually on exotic sports cars and very high-cost vehicles. CarbonPro’s claim to fame is that it broke through that cost barrier.

Voss and his group accomplished that by employing a thermoplastic with short (about an inch) chopped carbon fibers, instead of the more traditional thermal set with long, continuous fibers. By doing so, they created an isotropic (material characteristics equal in all directions) material that could be recycled. As a result, they eliminated the high scrap rate associated with so many composite parts.

“On earlier executions, our scrap rates were high,” Voss said. “We were literally throwing 50% of it into the dumpster. Now, our goal is to use 100% of the fiber, and we’re on our way to doing that.”

GM’s success in bringing the carbon fiber box to a mainstream vehicle was the culmination of a seven-year effort by the automaker. Seeing carbon fiber’s advantages in luxury sports cars, management challenged its engineers to find a better way in 2011.

Voss, who previously worked on carbon fiber composite parts for the 2004 Corvette, was a logical candidate to carry it out. A mechanical engineer with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and a master’s from Purdue, Voss had earned a reputation around GM as the de facto expert in manufacturing composite parts.

Looking back, Voss says he never expected to end up as a specialist in composites—especially since his background is not in material science. “I’m a mechanical engineer and a car guy,” he said. “When I came here, I had zero formal training in composites.”

Still, he and his team have since taken the technology up a notch and achieved the unexpected. “We’ve been able to do things with this Sierra pickup that haven’t been done anywhere else,” he said. “We’re really breaking down the walls in many, many areas.”

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Marissa West: Making Future Vehicles Quieter

General Motors engineer Marissa West is bringing innovation to the world of automotive noise and vibration.

GM engineer Marissa West: “We’re just beginning to understand what vehicles of the future will sound and feel like.”  (Image source: Steve Fecht for General Motors)

When discussions turn to the future of the automobile, noise and vibration are seldom mentioned.

But noise and vibration, like so many other aspects of vehicle engineering, are profoundly affected by alternative powertrains, lightweight materials, and even autonomous driving technologies.

That’s where General Motors engineer Marissa West comes in. Every day, West deals with issues that didn’t exist a decade ago. “We’re on a new frontier with electric vehicles,” said West, who serves as the director of the Global Noise and Vibration Center at General Motors. “We’re just beginning to understand what vehicles of the future will sound and feel like.”

Indeed, the electric vehicle is evidence of the changes happening in the world of noise and vibration. Without an internal combustion to mask its other noises, the EV is highlighting a whole new set of issues. Squeaks, rattles, hums, and whines from the road, tires, fans, seats, wheels, motors, condenser, floor pan, and other parts of the car have all grown in importance. “Now, we’re hearing noises that we wouldn’t have otherwise heard because they were previously covered by the sound of the engine,” West said.

Adding to that complexity is the fact that engineers can no longer use extra mass to mitigate such issues. “As we reduce mass from all the different vehicle components and structures, we’re actually making our noise and vibration challenge a little more difficult,” West told us.

Capturing, Analyzing, and Fixing

Still, there are solutions. At GM’s Noise and Vibration Center, West and her teams use laser vibrometers to identify the natural frequencies of various components and identify structure-borne noises. They employ chassis dynamometers to analyze propulsion noises, including those coming from the motors of electric cars. They also use sophisticated binaural noise acquisition systems (so-called AachenHeads) to capture sounds, and then apply software to analyze them. Once they can identify such noises, they can get feedback on what needs to be fixed.

“Our team is spending time defining customer expectations,” West said. “And we’re making sure that electric motors and other tonal noises are mitigated.” In some cases, West added, they can use new technologies, such as noise cancellation, to remedy the problems that can no longer be fixed by adding mass.

To date, the results have been impressive. GM’s Chevy Bolt has been praised for its noise and vibration performance, with Consumer Reports calling it “very quiet.”

“We’re really proud of the Bolt,” West said. “The road noise is extremely good and it’s fun to drive.”

A New Frontier

West knows, however, that the challenges won’t end with electric vehicles. As the company moves toward autonomous cars, she says, her team is already beginning to face a whole new set of issues. Future vehicles, she says, may not have pedals and steering wheels. Passengers and drivers may sit in different locations. “As we look forward to a world of autonomous vehicles, we’re starting to understand how customers will interact with their vehicles and what the potential touch points are,” West said. “From a noise and vibration standpoint, there are implications there.”

Moreover, there are the unexpected issues, such as a need for exterior microphones, so that an autonomous car can take necessary action when an emergency vehicle draws near. West said engineers at the center are now studying whether there’s a real case for such technology.

For West, such challenges are the bread and butter of her professional existence, an existence for which she seems to have been destined. West grew up in southeast Michigan, about 60 miles from Detroit, and she was always surrounded by engineering and technology. Her father was a GM engineer, and both grandfathers worked in GM plants, as did her great-grandfather.

“There was never any question that I wanted to be in the automotive industry,” she said. “And there was also no question that I wanted to work for General Motors.”

That, too, seemed pre-ordained. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering at Michigan State University and did an internship at GM’s Milford Proving Grounds, which she said sealed the deal. She’s been at GM ever since, working in noise and vibration, chassis design, and hybrid powertrain technologies.

She says those assignments provided a broad automotive background and prepared her for the innovative approach she’ll need in the coming years and as her chosen field evolves. “We’re on the frontier of sound design,” she told us. “Noise and vibration have an opportunity for innovation that generally isn’t recognized.”

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