Dr Brian Holt, Lenora Clark, William Li, Linda Zhang and Yoshiaki Nitta
Dr Brian Holt, Lenora Clark, William Li, Linda Zhang and Yoshiaki Nitta

The automotive industry is facing enormous shifts as it moves away from over a century of reliance on combustion technology, while at the same time attempting to integrate a plethora of advanced driver-assistance systems.

It’s arguably one of the most important eras in the sector’s history, with investment in electrification accelerating and developments in autonomous functionality delivering greater levels of self-driving capability.

But the technologies that are arriving and on the horizon are only part of the story. It’s the people behind the advances who are pushing automotive in new directions, helping it adjust to a new future and deliver vehicles that meet the mobility needs of the masses.

There are many faces driving the industry, but here are just five of the standout names in the sector.

Linda Zhang, Ford

Linda Zhang was tasked with recreating an icon of the North American automotive industry, and pulling it into an electrified future. The F-150 pickup truck has been a cornerstone of Ford’s business since its introduction in 1948, remaining one of the company’s biggest sellers and pushing competitors down the sales charts. But even the F-150 isn’t immune from changes in the industry, and the vehicle’s line-up of V6 and V8 gasoline engines at least needed an electric sibling.

Zhang led the team delivering Ford’s first-ever all-electric F-150 pickup, when the F-150 Lightning programme started in September 2018.

She was well placed to take charge of arguably one of Ford’s most important – and perhaps divisive – development projects. 

Zhang has been with Ford for nearly 25 years after joining the company after graduating with a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Michigan, becoming part of the Ford College Graduate programme. 

Her career has taken her through manufacturing, product development, finance and vehicle programmes including the Ford Explorer, Escape, Kuga and previous F-150 variants. 

William Li, Nio

Forget Elon Musk and Tesla, if you want to see someone who’s shaping the automotive industry look to China and the founder of Nio. William Li only started the venture in 2014 but is already expanding the technologies it offers and the regions it operates in. 

After the failed Project Better Place, few would have seen battery swapping as a legitimate approach to EV ownership, but Li and his colleagues at Nio have developed a system that works, and not just in China. Li is taking the system to Europe, first in Norway but then expanding into Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark.

The principle is simple. If your battery is depleted you can drive to a service station and swap the battery for a fully charged version. But the approach has opened the door to other business approaches.

Nio’s Battery as a Service subscription model means that users can purchase a car without the battery. This makes EVs more price competitive against existing powertrains, while also providing the flexibility to change battery capacity depending on user needs, just paying the relevant subscription fees to access the battery needed.

Lenora Clark, ESI Automotive

Automotive’s scale can be overwhelming, but the route to an electrified, autonomous future could be decided on the smallest aspect of a technology. 

Lenora Clark is pushing for greater understanding of material choices in the automotive space, conversations that have become more open as OEMs and Tier Ones realise the levels of detail required to succeed. 

ESI Automotive’s director of autonomous driving is a career engineer and is helping to develop new engineering techniques to improve ADAS reliability and safety, and could help firms go beyond Level Three autonomy.

Clark’s role is all-encompassing and she works closely with OEMs, suppliers and fabricators to understand the needs of the entire supply chain to achieve faster, more reliable solutions across electronics, uniting circuitry, semiconductor and assembly solutions for a holistic approach to automotive market needs.

Dr Brian Holt, Parkopedia

We can often be distracted by the vehicles filing off production lines, with ever greater levels of technology integrated under the bodywork, but the automotive space involves a lot more than the end product. For technologies such as autonomous functionality to integrate fully into our lives, a huge number of other businesses need to be involved in the process. 

Parkopedia is one of those firms, and Dr Brian Holt, its chief technology officer, is pushing to make autonomous functionality a reality. His team is developing parking solutions for autonomous cars, including automated valet parking technologies.

The system’s software plans a route from the drop-off zone to the selected target parking space when the driver presses ‘Park’. The vehicle is able to find its current position in the parking facility without a GPS signal. Finally, the software plans a path back to the pick-up zone when summoned.

Holt is well placed to lead the charge in this sphere, having previously worked at Samsung Electronics managing on-device artificial intelligence, vision-based localisation and augmented/virtual-reality projects. And he sits on the committee for Intelligent Transport Systems Standards.

Yoshiaki Nitta, Nissan

Everyone is looking at what battery technology is coming next to power electric vehicles, and for many the chatter is about solid-state systems. There is a lot of work still to be done to make them scaleable but Nissan’s Yoshiaki Nitta is part of a team dedicated to making solid-state a reality.

Nitta is expert leader at Nissan’s advanced materials and processing laboratory, part of a team that is working to shift reliance away from traditional lithium-ion battery technology that uses liquid systems to all-solid-state batteries as it aims to launch an EV with in-house developed ASSBs by 2028.

Battery technology is a passion as well as a career for Nitta. He joined Panasonic in 1983 to work in battery materials research and cell development, before moving to Samsung in 2003 where he worked in cell research and line processing. 

Then in 2005 he moved to Tanaka Chemical Corporation’s materials research and development and production department, before shifting to Nissan in 2009.

And it’s Nitta’s passion that could change the efficiency, range and adoption of EVs, helping shift the industry further towards its electrified future.

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

By Tara