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Automotive Trends Shift Staffing Focus to Generalists

By Terry Costlow

Technologies like connectivity and autonomous driving are causing dramatic changes in the automotive industry’s engineering staffs. Specialists are needed to delve into the bits and bytes of creating efficient safety and infotainment/communication systems, but generalists who understand the vehicle’s overall electronic architecture must ensure that myriad systems work together.

Today’s cars have 80 to 100 million lines of code, but most of the systems that run this code operate somewhat independently. Things change when vehicles reach out to the cloud for firmware updates and run cell phone apps that ask for speedometer or oil quality data. Autonomous and assisted driving also require several mission-critical interactions between modules, for example, when camera systems will communicate with controls for braking, and steering modules that must make decisions quickly enough to avoid a crash.

Engineers who create architectures for interactive systems require in-depth knowledge to ensure that glitches don’t occur. It takes specialized knowledge to configure hardware and networks and write the software that lets a car’s many controllers work harmoniously.

At the same time, engineers with a general understanding of all these systems have to ensure that no problems occur when complex decisions must be made. Engineers who have a broad overview are critical for ensuring that everything works together without conflicts or glitches. Right now, architects with broader technical skills are the most difficult staffers to find.

“The mix is changing more towards broad-based engineers as one cannot focus anymore solely on a particular technology without considering its implications on others,” said Dean Tomazic, Chief Technology Officer at FEV North America Inc., a provider of automotive development services. “Programs supporting inter-company job rotation can certainly contribute significantly to broaden the knowledge base of engineers and thus making them more valuable to their corresponding organizations.”

That’s quite different from fields like industrial automation, where specialization is desirable. “A broad-based engineer has not yet become an expert on any systems and therefore is less expensive on a per-hour basis,” said John Gibson, a vice president at Siemens.

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In automotive, it takes a while for engineers who understand technologies like cameras, networking or algorithms to learn how all these elements fit together. Companies spend a lot of time developing this talent in house.

“Generalists are grown, not bought,” said Alexander Much, head of software systems engineering for car infrastructure at Elektrobit, an embedded solutions and service supplier. “If you want someone with security, safety and architectural knowledge, you need to grow them. We want people who can really program — we can teach them something like AUTOSAR.”

The Automotive Open System Architecture (AUTOSAR) is one of the standards that’s being adopted as complex vehicle architectures require modules from various suppliers. Its growing use in an industry that previously showed little interest in electronic standards highlights the increased linkage between various modules. That shines the spotlight on personnel with broad-based skills.

“While subject matter experts will always be required to develop, fine tune and hence optimize individual sub-systems, in our business, the automotive industry, it is the successful execution of integrating all sub-systems involved into the vehicle that makes a vehicle development program a success,” Tomazic said. “In any industry requiring engineering services, however, the provision of such oversight is what broad-based engineers can bring to the table.”

Often, specialists and generalists see different ways to meet the overall goal of providing the most beneficial and efficient features and functions at the lowest cost. In the auto industry, it’s the generalists who determine which of these paths will be followed.

“The final say is always with the architect,” Much said. “If their goals aren’t met, it will destroy the integrity of the product.”

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Product reliability and safety are major concerns for vehicle design teams. Cost is also an important factor. That means engineers must constantly look at ways to reduce the amount of computing horsepower, memory and other factors. Sometimes, they’ll trim costs by relying on another controller. Other times, design managers will figure out ways to integrate technologies and eliminate a module.

“In that context, development engineers need to be conscious of how systems will impact others, and in the extreme case might render them useless or unnecessary,” Tomazic said. “Being aware of and recognizing these implications early on represents a huge potential for overall cost and time savings.”

The growing focus on broader-based skill sets comes as enterprises around the globe struggle to find proficient personnel. In locales where many automotive companies are based, it’s extremely difficult to find trained workers. That’s prompted many automotive suppliers to set up international facilities. For example, Elektrobit just opened offices in Romania and India.

“Getting skilled resources in Germany or Detroit is very difficult,” Much said. “We have a site in Romania and we have been successful finding talent there. The same is true in Bangalore.”

Often, these remote operations are staffed with specialists who have honed their skills at some of the same colleges and worksites. These regional centers get down and dirty with technology while operating under the direction of architects and managers who take a broad view of vehicle electronics. Keeping all staffers in synch requires both good personnel skills and effective design environments.

“With companies working more and more on a global basis, it has become common practice to establish centers of excellence in certain parts of the world to centralize certain expertise to efficiently serve the entire company from that particular location,” Tomazic said. “Processes to integrate these locations, including definition of the corresponding interface requirements, are of utmost importance in that context as well as dedicated and secure data transfer connections with high data throughput allowing for efficient data exchange around the globe.”

Though remote sites are often specialized, managers often want to create a hierarchy with some generalists who can easily explain system requirements to work down the hall. Companies like Elektrobit often do that by cross pollination, moving skilled people from existing facilities to newer remote sites and vice versa.

“We’re placing some of our people in the new sites and bringing some of the new people to Germany,” Much said.

However, there’s always a challenge for companies that invest in training. As people learn new skills, they become more attractive to other corporations. Job hopping occurs everywhere, though it’s often more prevalent in emerging regions where growth is faster.

“The hard part is keeping people long enough,” Much said.

Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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