Skip to main content
the lunch

Swamy Kotagiri, chief technology officer, Magna International Inc.Rachel Idzerda/The Globe and Mail

Swamy Kotagiri is just one man in a large company in a giant industry.

But as chief technology officer of Magna International Inc., Mr. Kotagiri has to make sure he knows what's happening on the leading edge of auto making amid one of the most turbulent times in its history.

At the top of his mind: high-tech powerhouses such as Apple Inc. and Google Inc., on the verge of entering the business; new regulations coming that will require major changes in vehicle propulsion; and billions of dollars being spent developing autonomous vehicles.

Trying to stay on top of such trends and making sure Magna is well positioned to play a leading role as they develop might appear to be an overwhelming task, but not for Mr. Kotagiri.

"Being able to see where the next steps are and being part of that leading edge is just amazing," he says.

So since he is just one man trying to make sure he knows where the industry is headed, he decided it would be a good idea to ask the company's 130,000 employees around the world what the vehicle of the future should do that vehicles do not do today.

Some of the answers from the survey:

The sound of a turning signal should be adjustable, like the ring tone on a smartphone.

Why do cars have sun visors that have to be adjusted by hand instead of responding automatically to the sun and a driver's eye level?

"It's like big data," the 46-year-old native of India says over lunch in a boardroom next to his office at Magna's U.S. headquarters in Troy, Mich., in June. "The whole idea of this was this is big data in a different way. It's 130,000 people that we have captive, so let's see what themes emerge and we can set a platform to solve some of these issues."

In the distance out the picture window, as he lunches on minestrone, a spring roll and vegetables from the cafeteria downstairs, vehicles whiz by on I-75. For now, they're all under the control of drivers, but they're getting more and more electronic help, some of it from technology developed by Magna.

When Mr. Kotagiri is asked what he wants the vehicle of the future to do, there is no hesitation – take over the driving when he hits a traffic jam.

"Even though I like driving, I like driving when the roads are empty and it's winding and there's no traffic," he says. But in stop-and-go traffic, keeping his hands on the wheel and his foot switching constantly between the accelerator pedal and the brake is tedious. His 2014 Cadillac XTS doesn't have adapting braking.

"I call it more automated driving when needed, rather than autonomous driving. Here's a situation where it's not pleasure any more; all I want is to get to point B from where I started."

Where he started in life is a long way from Troy, Mich., where he now has one of the senior executive jobs at one of the world's largest auto parts companies.

He was born in a small village in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in India and went to work in the cement industry. But he wanted something more and some friends from India who were already in the United States urged him to move.

So he wrote a letter to Eric Price, then dean of mechanical engineering at Oklahoma State University, who was on the science and technology advisory committee to then U.S. president Bill Clinton. The letter was not well written, he recalls, but Prof. Price responded.

"He reached out to me – completely fortuitous," Mr. Kotagiri says, including urging him to go to the United States and enroll. He did so, arriving in the United States on Jan. 1, 1993, earning his master's degree and eventually going to work for General Motors Co. at the auto maker's truck centre in Pontiac, Mich.

He joined Magna in 1999 at the auto-parts maker's Cosma metal-bashing division, which many people both inside and outside the company regard as the heart and soul of Magna.

His work there included running all of Cosma's engineering operations and setting up new plants in some overseas locations. In 2014, he was appointed chief technology officer of the Aurora, Ont.-based parts company.

But what's coming down the pike in the next decade will encompass almost every aspect of a vehicle. The critical focus for auto makers and their suppliers is reducing weight to cut fuel consumption and meet the emissions targets governments are requiring them to meet in the next decade, which in some ways takes him back to his Cosma days, but it's also about electronics helping to make vehicles more efficient.

"Cars that lack steering wheels, brake when they sense a person or object, emit only water when on the move or use advanced materials like carbon fibre reinforced polymer – these are just some of the innovations that will be commonplace by 2025," Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs & Co. Inc. said in a recent research report.

Many of those technologies are already available or under development and it should not take a major breakthrough to meet the regulatory targets, Mr. Kotagiri says.

He believes the fuel economy of existing internal combustion engines can be improved by another 8 per cent to 10 per cent.

Better methods of joining steel with aluminum or other lightweight materials will help reduce weight.

But the development of a better battery to use in electric vehicles is key, he believes.

"If there is a battery that can charge under five to 10 minutes, with a true range under all operating conditions to be 350 miles on a charge, that's disruptive, that's going to change the world," he notes.

During a 30-minute tour of the innovation centre on the first floor of the U.S. head office, he shows off all the products Magna has developed that reduce weight, including a Ford Focus compact car that weighs the same as a smaller subcompact Ford Fiesta.

That weight reduction was obtained by using more aluminum – the car is 40-per-cent aluminum and 60-per-cent steel, compared with a traditional Focus, which is 85-per-cent steel.

But more important, all the materials and technologies used are available now.

"There is no technology in here that is experimental," he says. "Everything is in production."

Given the technological challenges facing Magna, Mr. Kotagiri doesn't have a lot of down time.

Asked what he does when he's not at work, Mr. Kotagiri responds that that depends on how one defines work.

"My definition of retirement is that you retire to do things you really like to do. If you really do things that you like every day, then I'm already retired. I really enjoy what I do."

But when time allows, he can be found on a golf course or a skeet-shooting range near his home in suburban Detroit.

"There are a lot of mechanics to it. I like that," says the mechanical engineer. What he doesn't like, though, is that his 19-year-old daughter is getting better than he is.

He started skeet shooting two years ago and admits that for now, he's just happy to hit the targets.

As to whether he, Magna and the industry will hit the automotive targets, the answer to that question is a few years away.

-------------------------------------

Swamy Kotagiri, chief technology officer, Magna International Inc.

Age: 46

Place of birth: Andhra Pradesh, India

Education: Bachelor of mechanical engineering, Karnataka University, India; master's in mechanical engineering, Oklahoma State University

Family: Married to Anitha for 21 years. Daughter, Prarthana, 19; son, Girish, 11.

Reading: The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown, about nine U.S. rowers trying to win the gold medal in the men's eights at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Unique item in his office: Albert Einstein bobblehead doll

Favourite device: "I recently bought a set of [golf] clubs that are my favourite device."

Favourite electronic device: His iPhone 6. "Smartphones are amazing. I don't think you can call it a phone any more. I enter my calories; it's my pedometer; it's my navigation device; it's my calendar. I call it a true personal assistant."