A systems engineering approach is especially relevant for EVs such as the 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E. (Ford)

WCX 2021: Systems thinking as powerful as propulsion systems

As complexity skyrockets, industry leaders see a focus-shift for systems engineering

There’s a revolution brewing as engineers develop electric and autonomous vehicles that require layers and layers of complicated systems to come together. “This is the time in the automotive industry where we are at an immense inflection point, and without systems engineering none of this would be possible,” said Joaquin Nuno-Whelan, VP of hardware for Motional Inc., an autonomous vehicle company formed by a joint venture between Hyundai Motor Group and supplier Aptiv.

Nuno-Whelan and other automotive industry panelists stressed the importance of systems engineering at “The Criticality of a System’s Approach to Today’s Propulsion” session during SAE’s WCX 2021 Digital Summit. Consultant Anne O’Neil was the session moderator. While systems engineering isn’t a new approach, it is getting renewed attention from proponents. “The systems approach, I see it as an enabler for really highly capable systems,” said Stefan Koidl, vice president of engineering for powertrain solutions at Bosch.

The ICE powertrain is still a complex system. “We applied system engineering, of course,” said Mazen Hammoud, director of global propulsion strategy and planning for Ford Motor Company. He added, “Now, with electric vehicles, it is a rolling chassis in which you build the topcoat and it becomes a full-vehicle optimization.”

For battery electric vehicles (BEVs), there are multiple parameters that must be considered, including the driving range, time to charge, cost, and safety. According to Denise Gray, president of LG Energy Solution Michigan Inc., “All of those parameters must be thought of as we think about the solution set that we create. It truly is a balance of requirements, a balance of potential solutions.”

For Gray, the answer is systems engineering. “In order to really push this systems engineering approach from not just an idea or not just something that a few of us passionately agree with, what if we had a role called the Chief Systems Officer (CSO)?” Gray asked. In short, a CSO would help workers recognize the need for a balanced, flexible, agile approach from a systems perspective.

Being flexible and agile helps the engineering team, including supplier-partners, reach end goals, according to Nuno-Whelan. “As things evolve, we know how to evolve together. And without that strong systems connection across everything, it doesn’t work,” Nuno-Whelan said, adding, “We need to develop a new mindset in how we set up the entire system.”

An engineer’s thought-process needs to consider everything, even down to the smallest components on the vehicle, according to Stephan Tarnutzer, president of AVL Powertrain Engineering. “Understanding where a component goes into a system and what opportunities it has to enhance and make the system even better, that’s a critical piece that we really stress at AVL,” said Tarnutzer. He added, “We cannot just be great at an overall system. We also need to have an excellent understanding of what each individual component does, what it needs to contribute, and what it can contribute.”

Communication should never be the overlooked contributor. “We need to keep talking with each other and working across teams, so we can leverage what they’re learning in their various areas,” Gray noted.

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