WCX 2021: Top Engineers Talk Industry Transformation

Connectivity, autonomous vehicles, and new work patterns are top-of-mind for the industry’s engineering leaders at SAE’s annual summit.

From left: Roger Nielsen, Daimler Trucks North America; Stephen Rober, Stellantis; Matt Tsien, General Motors, and Ken Washington, Ford. (Daimler, Stellantis, GM, Ford)

Despite more than a year of COVID-19, lockdown, component shortages and uncertainties, the outlook for mobility engineering hasn’t shifted too dramatically during the global pandemic, as top-level executives remain bullish on new technologies including autonomous vehicles and over-the-air (OTA) connectivity. “It’s just a wonderful time to be an engineer because there are so many things going on,” said Matt Tsien, General Motors executive VP and chief technology officer, and president of GM Ventures.

Tsien and other executives talked about future product and how the pandemic has altered the work environment during the “How Are Executives Driving Innovation and Transformation” session at SAE’s WCX 2021 Digital Summit. The April 14 panel discussion was moderated by Dr. Ken Washington, chief technology officer at Ford Motor Co.

Vehicle connectivity is top-of-mind for Roger Nielsen, president and CEO of Daimler Trucks North America. “We see connectivity as the supporting technology to help our customers with their business,” said Nielsen, noting that connectivity is also a foundational system for automated and autonomous driving systems.

“We’re skipping [SAE] Level 3 automation and going right to Level 4,” Nielsen said. The reason to go straight to SAE Level 4 has a lot to do with a commercial truck’s sleeper bunk, a potential lure for a sleepy driver who then wouldn’t be in position to handle driving tasks during a technology hand-off. “As we go forward, we see the autonomous world in trucking being able to accelerate pretty quick just because of the needs we see in society,” Nielsen said.

On the passenger vehicle side of future mobility, Tsien said GM plans to introduce its hands-free Super Cruise automated driving system on 22 vehicles by 2023. The technology debuted on the Cadillac CT6 luxury sedan in 2017. Ford recently announced that its BlueCruise semi-autonomous driving technology will be available via an OTA software update on 2021 Ford F-150 and 2021 Mustang Mach-E vehicles fitted with the Ford Co-Pilot 360 Active 2.0 prep package. BlueCruise “is an example of this continuum of automation where now we can enable the sensor suite that’s already been integrated into the vehicle with advanced AI (artificial intelligence) software to give the ability to have hands-free, semi-autonomous driving on the highway,” said Washington.

The pandemic and a microchip shortage have altered business as usual, but creativity is helping to solve immediate issues. “The biggest thing right now is creating options for critical modules and even the non-critical modules,” said Stephen Rober, VP and global head of advanced technologies for Stellantis. Options have included looking at different suppliers, different parts, and different pieces.

For workers, the pandemic has often meant working at home. Engineers have re-invented their workspace. “Labs have been created in basements and garages. And instead of driving to work and getting into a test bay, a garage or a driveway might be the substitute, depending on the maturity of the vehicle,” Rober noted.

While the panelists readily admitted there are drawbacks to working remotely, such as the lost opportunities for co-workers to discuss problems in person, there are ways to connect with others. Nielsen has made business connections without traveling by plane. “I’ve criss-crossed the country six times in 300 days,” Nielsen said about his roadway excursions via motorhome. He added, “We’ve been trying to use the pandemic to re-establish how we deal with customers and dealers.”

Said Tsien, “As we emerge from the pandemic, hopefully in the very near future, I do believe we’re going to be looking at new patterns of work. It’s going to be more flexible. There are going to be more opportunities for people to spend a little bit more time working from home. But clearly there is a need for interaction.”