Detroit Regional Chamber > Detroiter Magazine > Mobility Tech Stars: A Rising Star in a New Frontier

Mobility Tech Stars: A Rising Star in a New Frontier

September 8, 2022 James Martinez

James Martinez | Metro Detroit Freelance Writer

Margarita Mann, HYDROTEC Hydrogen Fuel Cell Business Leader, General Motors

The Long Beach-Los Angeles metro area has two of the world’s busiest ports, notorious traffic congestion, and the nation’s “worst smog pollution” per the American Lung Association. It sits at the southern end of California, a state battling worsening heatwaves and wildfires.

Long Beach and California are not alone, of course. Cities and states everywhere are grappling with climate change. However, the solution to its problems may sit over 2,000 miles away in Pontiac, Michigan, in a relatively small blue metal box designed by one of Long Beach’s own.

That “box,” GM’s HYDROTEC fuel cell power cube, is packed with over 300 precisely crafted hydrogen fuel cells that serve as an emissions-free energy source that can power everything from cars to airplanes to generators for homes.

The lead engineer behind HYDROTEC’s power-packed cube is Margarita Mann, who at 37 is a rising star in zero emissions technology with a string of patents and pioneering work on Chevy’s electric vehicle line. At GM’s fuel cell lab engineering center in Pontiac, Mann leads a team of over 100 engineers and is spearheading efforts on its first ever commercial production fuel cell system – an accomplishment she sees as critical to offering clean-energy solutions to the world, including her hometown.

Impacting the Community That Made Her

Growing up, Mann and her family, including her grandparents, lived in a one-bedroom apartment in an underserved immigrant neighborhood bearing the brunt of nearby industrial activity.

“Where we lived the air quality was pretty bad and it caused breathing problems and health issues to many of the people that I knew,” said Mann, a point underscored when her grandmother, a non-smoker and avid walker, passed away of lung cancer in 2019.

Seeing the impact on her family and neighbors inspired Mann to pursue a career that would provide solutions to the pollution that tormented her neighbors and loved ones.

“Growing up with all of that, I had to do something about it. I knew I wanted to pursue a field where I could make a positive impact to the community that made me,” said Mann.

Putting NASA’s ‘Magic’ in Cars

In college, Mann focused on science and space technology as stories of NASA’s space exploits in the 1960s and a “magical device” captured her attention.

“The fuel cell helped the astronauts get to the moon. It powered their command module, it even created the water they drank,” Mann said. “I was so fascinated hat I wondered: ‘Why aren’t we doing this?’”

That question sparked her research into hydrogen fuel cells – where she led the way in validating and commissioning the first set of retail hydrogen stations in California. After graduating with degrees in mechanical and material science engineering at UC Davis, Mann was pursuing her master’s degree at UCLA when she learned of GM’s “Project Driveway,” a pilot program using Chevy Equinoxes to test fuel cells.

“That role gave me hands on experience. The Chevy Equinox fuel cell was the first car I ever tore apart and put back together,” Mann said.

From there she landed her dream job as a fuel cell engineer in 2007, gaining expertise in fuel cells and battery electric vehicles that is culminating with helping set up GM’s fuel cell business unit, HYDROTEC.

Clean EV Charging and a New Frontier

GM’s HYDROTEC technology is an alternative power source that runs hydrogen through a stack of fuel cells creating an electric current that powers an electric motor. It is lighter than EV battery packs, runs relatively quietly, and produces clean water as its only byproduct.

HYDROTEC has wide applications beyond traditional vehicles, including commercial trucks, locomotives, and aircraft. For instance, commercial truck manufacturer Navistar uses HYDROTEC fuel cell power cubes as part of a zero-emissions alternative to diesel engines.

The power cubes also offer clean, mobile power generation with a broad set of applications including charging EVs or powering homes during outages.

“We can put it in so many other spaces other than just vehicles,” Mann said. “It’s a new frontier for us. We’re a car company, but now it’s all these other spaces, too. It really touches people’s lives.”

Perhaps most importantly, it could hold the key to helping create a clean-energy future.

“We’re all affected by climate change in one way or another, whether it’s rising sea levels or extreme weather or, in my case, air pollution,” said Mann. “These are all things we worry about, but they are also opportunities to solve.”

Athira VilsonAthira Vilson, Power Electronics Engineer, BorgWarner

The Job

Plays a key role in developing the on-board diagnostics needed to enhance performance and safety of the electric motor components BorgWarner sells to OEMs. Vilson, 31, essentially creates algorithms and helps provide the tools to measure critical aspects of EV performance such as thermal management, powertrain efficiency, and detecting circuit faults in the system. This data is provided to the R & D team to inform product development, or as she puts it, her work helps identify “the next advancement or improvement we can make to the system itself.”

The Industry Journey

EVs popped onto Vilson’s radar as she worked on her master’s degree in electrical engineering at Lamar University in Texas after completing her undergraduate work in India. Intrigued by the advanced technology in vehicles, Vilson, a lifelong learner in the U.S. with a H-1B visa, eventually came to Michigan and secured contract work with Ford Motor Company. Working on emission testing for hybrid vehicles, she gained experience in both gas and electric vehicle technology. Joining BorgWarner in 2019, Vilson dove deeper into diagnostics and assessing the performance of inverters.

Product Highlights: 800V SiC Inverter

Relatively small, inverters have an outsized impact on EV driving range and performance. Much how fuel injectors ensure the proper fuel and oxygen mix for internal combustion engines, inverters convert the direct current from an EV’s battery to the alternative current needed to drive the motor. BorgWarner’s 800V silicon carbide (SiC) inverter allows for higher voltage usage and includes a proprietary power switch that ensures more powerful propulsion systems that enhance driving performance, longer battery ranges, and faster charging times. It is currently being used by two global OEMs for numerous future EVs.

Beth LoomisBeth Loomis, Executive Program Manager, Toyota North America

The Job

Loomis, 48, spearheads Toyota’s North American mobility R & D efforts and oversees the vehicle development program as the company develops next-generation mobility solutions and services. Based out of Saline, she works as a part of an eight-person Mobility as a Service (MaaS) team that brings together engineering and business as part of “Toyota’s approach to making sure we have the right kind of transportation at the right time in the right method.”

The Industry Journey

A couple of years into teaching high school social studies and social sciences, Loomis “pretty much decided that that was not going to be the career I retired from.” So, the Eastern Michigan University grad began a job search that led her to the Toyota R & D center in Saline near Ann Arbor. What started as contract work in 1998 evolved into a full-time position in the product development office and 18 years working on the Sienna minivan before taking over management of mobility R&D in 2018.

Product Highlight: Sienna AUTONO-MAAS Vehicle Platform

The Toyota Sienna Autono-MaaS is the base vehicle to help startup companies develop and test autonomous vehicle systems and is built from the ground up ready to be controlled by a computer. The Michigan-based vehicle production team strips down the Indiana-produced 2022 Sienna minivans and rebuilds them with a control interface to create a new vehicle platform that communicates with third-party autonomous vehicle driving kits that integrate unique hardware and software into Autono-MaaS. Toyota currently collaborates with Aurora Innovation and May Mobility on autonomous mobility services with the goals of increasing safety by removing human error, eliminating the need for drivers, and closing transportation gaps.

Darren PalmerDarren Palmer, Vice President, Electric Vehicle Programs, Ford Model e

The Job

Leads product development for Ford Model e – the recently formed division of Ford Motor Company focused on creating cutting-edge electric vehicles (EVs). Palmer, 49, works with a global team stacked with talent and now includes hardware and software engineers formerly employed by the likes of Apple, Amazon, and Disney as well as current employees of startups in Israel. It’s the combination of experience in his teams now that motivates him.

The Industry Journey

Palmer’s affinity for electronic gadgets started as a child in England in the 80s and came in part due to his father, who once served as a radar operator in the British Royal Navy in World War II. In college, Palmer earned an electrical, electronics, and technology degree and focused on cars over planes and trains because “they were accessible to more people.”

Starting his career in Ford in 1995, he held various international positions in global product development playing an influential role in the Ford Explorer, Puma, Mustang, Fiesta, and Focus. About five years ago, Ford brought Palmer to the U.S. to work in Michigan to develop the next-generation Mustang. Following the move, he became part of the founding group behind Team Edison, the internal startup company that served as a precursor to Ford Model e, originally based in The Factory in Corktown.

Product Highlights: Mustang Mach-E, Ford E-Transit, F-150 Lightning

With the last three vehicles developed under Palmer – the Mustang Mach-E, Ford E-Transit, and F-150 Lightning all thriving – Ford says it is now the second-best EV selling brand in the U.S. behind Tesla. “Every car we’re developing now is completely game-changing,” said Palmer.

The innovations that stand out most to him are the “technology that brings people together” through communications. An example, on a recent 110-degree day in Florida, Palmer converted the cab of his Ford Lightning into an air-conditioned office, hooking his laptop to the console and knocking out conference calls.

Mujeeb IjazMujeeb Ijaz, Founder and CEO, Our Next Energy

The Job

Leads Novi-based battery technology startup Our Next Energy (ONE), which specializes in energy storage solutions and has grown to nearly 150 employees in just over two years. Ijaz, 55, started the company around the goals of doubling the range of EVs, using safer and more sustainable raw materials, and establishing a local supply chain. Ijaz’s team is working to address perceived shortcomings in battery chemistry technology “that would impede the electrification transition from being successful,” such as the potential to lose 50% of range at higher speeds and in winter conditions.

The Industry Journey

As a mechanical engineering student at Virginia Tech, Ijaz participated in the 1990 GM Sunrayce USA, a competition for college students to build and race solar-powered vehicles. The experience sparked his interest in an automotive career and led him to electric vehicles as “a better way to move around.” Working on electric battery and fuel cell technology at Ford for more than 15 years, he led the team that developed its first zero-emission hybrid plug-in vehicle.  Ijaz eventually left Ford to help A123 Systems launch its automotive batteries and also worked on energy storage at Apple in California, before returning to Michigan in 2020 to launch ONE.

Product Highlight: Gemini Battery

ONE’s Gemini battery offers 600 plus mile range per charge by deploying dual chemistry technology incorporated in an experimental BMW iX. Gemini uses two types of batteries, one focused on power delivery and one for energy storage, because according to Ijaz, the battery nickel-cobalt based chemistry that “started to become the norm was having more evidence of vehicle recalls due to fires” due to the failure of the lithium ion cells. Gemini is designed to increase range while reducing the need for expensive and hard-to-get raw minerals such as nickel and cobalt while also reducing the need for graphite and lithium.

Vince GalanteVince Galante, Global Head of User Experience Design, Stellantis

The Job

Overseeing a global design team spread across seven countries, Galante, 40, is a traditionally trained exterior designer who shapes the user experience (UX) across Stellantis’ 14 brands. Over the past five years, his team has exploded from eight interior and exterior designers to more than 100 talented designers from numerous industries with a multitude of backgrounds to provide the next-generation experience consumers expect from connected, electric, and autonomous vehicles.

“We need motion and visual effects, sound designers, typographers, and interactive design, it’s like I have to hire the whole art school because I need someone from every department,” said Galante, noting he’s hired designers from the likes of Disney and Microsoft.

The Industry Journey

Growing up in Illinois, Galante couldn’t draw, paint, or sculpt enough to satisfy his passion for art. He also enjoyed comic books and video games, dreaming of designing his own characters and worlds. Late in high school he discovered industrial design’s application to another passion – cars. He eventually found his way to the College for Creative Studies in Detroit and instructor and renowned auto designer and executive Ralph Gilles who now serves as Galante’s boss at Stellantis. “I just loved art, and I loved cars, and one day, I found out I could do both – and make a job of it.”

Product Highlight: New Grand Wagoneer

Stellantis’ “fullest expression of modern UX on the road,” according to Galante, the Wagoneer offers over 75 inches of display area and state-of-the-art technology to better connect passengers to their SUV. It provides a customized experience for every passenger in the vehicle from easy-to-read displays for drivers to screens for passengers to stream their own entertainment.

Natalie KingNatalie King, Founder and CEO, Dunamis Clean Energy Partners

The Job

Leads the first Black-woman owned electric vehicle (EV) charger manufacturing company that builds charging units designed to serve residential, business, and commercial fleet consumers. King, 48, founded Dunamis in 2012 as a technology, manufacturing firm focused on energy efficiency and environmental service solutions. It is now set to open a manufacturing facility in Detroit later this fall as it expands into the EV space. The plant is expected to hire 30 assembly workers and technicians, with hopes of quadrupling that number by 2025.

The Industry Journey

Returning home from a church service in 2018, King lay down for a nap. She awoke with a directive: “You’re going to do electric vehicle charging, and you’re going to manufacture in Detroit.” A few days later she sat down with her lead engineer sketching out a plan that integrated her knowledge of energy efficiency solutions and LED lighting into manufacturing EV charging stations.

The move to automotive further taps into King’s lifelong passion for clean energy dating back to law school clerkships at the EPA and later work representing a solar energy firm as a corporate attorney. It also positions King and Dunamis to help ensure that an industry primed to “create billions and billions of dollars in wealth transfer” brings more minority entrepreneurs into the field with the goal of building a more equitable economy.

Product Highlight: Smart Level II Charging Stations

Dunamis is set to produce level II chargers that include 24/7 driver support, cloud-based software with easy-to-use features, and maintenance. Real-time system monitoring and control, redundant connectivity and communications, along with integrated management software mitigates the primary causes of most system failures and provides immediate notification of problem details to the owner, operator, and/or maintenance technician. Tested vigorously, the chargers will offer 99% reliability and the charging speed needed to usher in wider spread EV adoption, according to King.