Jorge Vázquez
R&D Center Director
Continental Automotive
View from the Top

German Bet on Mexican Engineering

Sat, 09/01/2018 - 10:04

Q: What advantages did Continental find in Queretaro to justify opening a new R&D center?
A: Queretaro has a solid business environment in the automotive and aerospace sectors. We already have an R&D center in Guadalajara but its focus is much more oriented toward information technologies. Being in a consolidated automotive cluster like Queretaro gives us access to infrastructure that was previously unavailable to us. With this new center, we will also make use of a new test track and we will be close to all the public R&D centers in the state to support our operations.
We analyzed 17 cities according to 26 parameters. We eliminated several contenders due to insecurity, lack of specialized talent and infrastructure related to R&D activities. In the end, we had two possible locations and we decided on Queretaro mainly because of its talent and the number of graduates that universities produce each year.
Q: How has Continental developed its relationship with the academic sector?
A: We have very strong collaboration with universities and public R&D centers. The goal is to develop the right talent to participate in the kind of activities we expect to complete at our new center. Right now, there is no dual-education program that can offer graduates the necessary expertise on mobility technology or embedded systems but we have organized several workshops independently and with universities to share the necessary knowledge with Queretaro’s talent. So far, we have trained between 200 and 250 engineering students per year, plus 500 more in other majors.
Q: What role does the government play in Continental’s development strategy in Mexico?
A: Having healthy relationships with state governments is a good strategy to reach the community that surrounds our investment. State administrations have helped us reach universities more effectively and determine which educational programs would be most suitable to fill job openings at our R&D centers. Furthermore, the government has been very open to funding specialization programs to train the talent we need to grow our operations. We have found much openness toward the industry’s needs. When the Queretaro administration realized that the test track the state had could help Continental, it decided to invest in its infrastructure to make it more adequate for our operations. Similarly, the Jalisco government has worked on new ways of incentivizing research and one of its strategies was to create an intellectual property protection program. Continental is now one of its main users and generator of patents in the state.
Q: What are Continental’s expectations for its new Queretaro center and how will your headquarters participate in the project?
A: Our headquarters in Germany contributed the necessary investment of €50 million (US$58.3 million) to start the project. Once completed, the center will have two buildings with more than 1,100 engineers working on technology developments focused on chassis and safety implementations. These innovations are active accident prevention systems that monitor the vehicle’s surroundings and minimize the consequences of an imminent accident. In the end, these systems work through artificial intelligence that will eventually be used in self-driving platforms.
Continental has evolved from component production to system implementation. This means that components are no longer individual pieces working within the vehicle. Each part has to interact with others to help the car’s computer make better decisions and minimize risks. We have radars that constantly monitor the distance between vehicles and at the same time communicate with the steering and braking systems to help the driver respond faster in the event of an accident.
Q: What is your position regarding collaboration between suppliers in technology development processes?
A: With technology development processes it is difficult to collaborate with other companies unless we are working toward a common goal. Any joint venture must be clearly established so all parties involved know what their responsibilities are and what they will gain by the end of the project. Continental has initiatives to identify startups with sufficient potential to contribute to the industry. Once we find a company with a strong proposal, we determine if it is best to acquire it, invest in it or form a joint venture to make the best of our collaboration. We also keep track of the individual projects of each of our engineers and if they have a promising idea, we offer them an incubation period of three or four months to develop their idea and present it to the company. This can even result in spin-off companies that work through an association with Continental.
In talent development, on the other hand, it is essential to work with other companies and there is much more flexibility to create something beneficial for all companies. We have created several Master’s and specialization programs at universities across the country along with other suppliers, hoping to develop the necessary talent for the industry to work according to the highest standards. We work to develop technology not only for Mexico but for the entire world and that demands state-of-the-art knowledge. Universities do not offer the foundation to generate that knowledge, which means the whole industry must collaborate to make this a reality.
Q: How have the latest trends in technology development impacted Continental’s innovation process?
A: Continental expects to revolutionize driver experience in the same way the industry expects to do so. Right now, the industry is going through its most disruptive change since the creation of the automobile, considering that both technology and the very idea of ownership are shifting in the consumer’s mind. Drivers will become passengers, which means that companies will have to rethink how to design the interior of the vehicle and all components related to the user. Mobility is what will shape the industry’s future; new business models will appear and both OEMs and suppliers will have to adapt to remain competitive and present in the industry.
Q: Overall, how do you see the vehicle of the future evolving and how is Continental planning to participate in its development?
A: We see the vehicle of the future as electric, autonomous, connected and intelligent. Electric vehicles will lead to a zero-emissions future and autonomy will reduce the number of accidents on the roads. Meanwhile connectivity will ensure we have the capacity to manage all the information necessary for the car to function, thus enabling the vehicle’s intelligence to make decisions and work collaboratively with other cars and even the city’s infrastructure. We are already involved in these four fields, manufacturing the systems that are already available such as adaptive cruise control and braking-assistance systems and developing the technology to habilitate further innovations.
Q: What role would Continental like to play in the development of the national industry?
A: Continental is a globalized company that tries to take advantage of the best of each region where it operates. Mexico, for example, is a country with a young labor force and one of the main producers of engineers per year. As a result, it is an excellent region to tackle problems with a different perspective than what we can offer in Germany. Mexico is already the second most-important country for Continental globally with 25,000 employees in 23 sites, which shows our commitment to the country and how a company can bet on Mexico’s talent. Queretaro will now be the biggest Continental center in the Americas and one of the most important in our entire network. Our plan is to have 1,100 engineers in the state, which means that we still have an opportunity to hire close to 1,000 people. Moreover, thanks to the test track in the state, our innovations will be ready for production directly from our Queretaro center.