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Diesel engines will remain viable in the short- to mid-term, including in hybrid setups like this F28 Hybrid unit from FPT Industrial. (CNH Industrial)

Innovation still industry's 'lifeblood' during pandemic

Despite a challenging climate, advancing technology and sharing innovative ideas remain vital, even if in a virtual environment.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced people and organizations alike to adapt to a world of social distancing and economic disruption. For SAE International, that’s included shifting its premier engineering events – first WCX and now COMVEC – to virtual platforms. But Jayanthi (Jay) Iyengar, chief technology officer (CTO) at CNH Industrial and the executive chairperson of this year’s COMVEC Digital Summit taking place Sept. 15-17, views this challenging environment as a time for opportunities, as well.

“It is more important than ever not to lose focus on our mission of advancing technology to continue to deliver value for our customers. In my experience, challenging environments often lend themselves to new, innovative ideas, and I feel that this virtual-event format to support the COVID safety protocols is also one of those,” Iyengar said.

For example, a virtual event can significantly increase engagement and provide an opportunity for a broader spectrum of people to listen, learn and contribute. “Historically, this has been a predominantly North American event,” she said. “Now, being virtual, it will allow more global participation, thereby enhancing the quality of the technical sessions with global perspectives." Iyengar does acknowledge that the inability to do in-person networking, one of the key benefits of such an event, is a shortcoming of the format. Curated one-on-one sessions, however, could help fulfill this role, she noted.

The CTO applies the same optimistic approach to her company’s ongoing technology development programs. “R&D and product development are the lifeblood of a company. The current situation is no different,” she asserted. “We have been focusing on safety, while ensuring progress on our development and launch projects. Most of our development teams have shifted to remote ‘smart working’ as the new normal and are continuing progress on key technical developments.

“We must be cognizant that this pandemic has impacted our partners and suppliers globally, but I see that everyone is pulling together in the same direction,” Iyengar continued. “We are all using advanced collaboration tools, following the discipline of product development. I am very optimistic that while this is a significant change, it will not impact development and launch significantly. With the social-distancing guidelines, we are also finding innovative ways to meet with customers to demonstrate new features.”

Regarding the technical program at the COMVEC Digital Summit, Iyengar personally is interested in the sessions around UX/UI (user experience and user interface). “As the products become complex, the most important aspect is to make it intuitive for a user with a human-machine interface that is seamless, helping create an emotional connection to the product.”

She’s also eager to learn more about disruptive technologies from start-up companies: “We at CNH Industrial believe in open innovation, building an innovation ecosystem with technology partners.” Taking a $250 million stake in Nikola earlier this year as the lead Series D investor illustrates this strategy. CNH Industrial’s Iveco and FPT Industrial brands will manufacture the Nikola Tre battery-electric and fuel-cell electric heavy-duty truck models at the Iveco facility in Ulm, Germany.

COMVEC’s technical program, revolving around the show’s central theme of “New Technologies Driving Industry Transformation,” will cover a range of topics – from internal-combustion engines and autonomous vehicles to aerodynamics and cybersecurity. Iyengar addressed many of these topics with Truck & Off-Highway Engineering ahead of the virtual event.

What are some of the main technologies driving ‘industry transformation’?
The agriculture, construction and transportation industries have become a fertile ground for a confluence of technology trends, all of which directly enhance customer value and contribute to a sustainable world. At CNH Industrial, we broadly categorize the technology-driven trends into four main areas: 1) Digitalization – broad diffusion of digital intelligent and connected applications, 2) Autonomous driving and robotization – vehicle process and task automation, 3) Servitization – Rise of “as a service” offerings and 4) Alternative propulsion – electrification and alternative power sources.

Digital technology provides interesting possibilities for machine automation and remote monitoring. Powerful embedded electronics, new sensors and data analytics methods (AI/ML) provide a wide range of opportunities to progressively automate the key machine functions, leading to full automation, autonomously operating intelligent vehicles.

Connectivity is an enabler for remote monitoring and data collection, which opens a wide range of new business opportunities such as precision farming, gathering machine operational and performance data, agronomic data and sending data to the machine to control the operations and enable new “machine as a service” models.

Electrification is a key technology for reduction of CO2 emissions, increasing energy efficiency and enhancing controllability. Underlying technologies for electrification include both battery-electric systems and hydrogen fuel cells. These technology transformations, while at various stages of adoption, are having a significant impact on the entire industry.

The industry is on the brink of transformation: leveraging advancements in computing power, electronics, big data, AI/ML, drones, sensing and other digital solutions. If you think about it, all the technologies that are usually present in a traditional, high-tech industry are here in our industry today.

What are the greatest challenges to overcome for this transformation to occur?
The main challenges in any new technology is wide market adoption. Key to driving adoption is to remain focused on the customer, continuously providing additional value by addressing their spoken and unspoken needs while managing product costs and reliability. To this end, it is important to think about modularity – creating building blocks of technology which can be progressively deployed with incremental features and functions. With the rapid pace of progression of underlying core technologies, the challenge is to make sure the solutions do not become obsolete.

Developing and transforming engineering skills and tools to be in line with the new technologies will be very critical. Companies need to “retool” their engineering skills from predominantly mechanical or mechatronics areas to software, electronics and embedded systems to move into digital technologies. Interdisciplinary engineering capabilities and systems engineering skills become paramount to develop these complex systems. The challenge for any company is the ability to attract good engineering talent, and there is a shortage of a talent pool with multiple industries competing for similar skills.

Do you see much possibility for cross-sector technology sharing?
Technology selection is usually driven by the application use-cases, mission profiles and the duty cycles. There are many areas of potential technology sharing between sectors. For example, off-highway can leverage the learning and development of perception technology from the on-highway sector. Core technologies, software and control algorithms can be common. In the area of electrification, core components such as batteries, fuel cells and motors could span construction, agriculture and commercial-vehicle segments. Additionally, data management – gathering, storing, and utilization – could be shared across all sectors. Ultimately, there are many adjacencies and opportunity for transferrable technologies.

With increasing regulatory pressures, how can diesel engines compete in the future?
I think diesel engines will continue in the short- to mid-term, particularly in areas of off-highway equipment where the charging infrastructure is not mature. Due to the varying products and applications, the reliance on an engine will not go away, but the needle may shift to more electric. For example, in several construction products, energy recuperation is possible and will tend to put pressure on diesel engines. In agriculture, there are very few ways to recapture energy and the charging infrastructure is not mature. Until batteries are compact enough to build into agricultural equipment such that a 10- to 12-hour working day is possible, diesel engines will be a challenge to fully replace.

Commercial vehicles lend themselves to electrification sooner depending on the mission profile and enabled by CO2 regulations and charging infrastructure. It is important to note that there are also continuous advancements in diesel engines with alternative diesel fuels to reduce emissions and technologies to reduce losses and improve efficiency. It is not just one technology – each solution will have its place driven by the need and enablers.

Cybersecurity becomes a greater concern as connectivity increases. How can companies protect against cyber incidents?
Functional safety and cybersecurity are a mandatory requirement, a core competency, when moving towards higher levels of automation and intelligent solutions. This is a very important focus area for CNH Industrial, both in the design and overall governance. Building in security features as a part of the original design vs. add-on, following the best practices, and applying standards such as NIST will be needed. I would like to see our industry work together to continue to define and refine standards, sharing best practices and safety protocols. We also collaborate with global legislative organizations to help develop appropriate regulations.

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