The power of curiosity

The power of curiosity

There’s an English proverb dating back to the sixteenth century that claims ‘curiosity killed the cat’ – it warns against the dangers of unnecessary investigation or experimentation. If there is one woman who embodies why that proverb doesn’t have a place in modern society, it’s Clíodhna Lyons.

As one of Nissan’s Research and Development Managers specialising in Automotive Software in Barcelona, she’s passionate about an industry that she says is ‘incomparable’ to any other. She believes that progress in her field is a result of engineers who push the boundaries.

“The best engineers all share that curiosity to see how something could be just a little bit better, seeking marginal gains through incremental improvements – which may just lead to a real breakthrough,” said Clíodhna, or ‘Cli’ as the Dublin native is referred to by her Spanish colleagues.

As an academic secondary school student who enjoyed maths and sciences, Cli was drawn to the auto industry as an undergraduate at University College Dublin in Ireland, which she followed up with a PhD in mechanical engineering for engine optimisation.

“That was seventeen years ago – of course emissions were important then, but nothing compared to the focus on them today. It wasn’t a strategic career move – I just found it so interesting – we all use our cars every day to move around, but we all take for granted the complex chemical reaction inside the engine.”

It was during her PhD study that Cli first heard about Nissan during a conference in the UK. She met with engineers from the company who explained that a part of the business’ engine development team was based in Spain. Curiosity led to a CV being filed and her career at Nissan began.

At first, she joined the combustion optimisation group, applying her knowledge to diesel car engines being produced for Europe; but in 2011 her job took another direction. “Our global HQ decided to start a new team in Barcelona that would lead the software activities for markets outside Japan and the US - I was asked to head that up. Whilst it was totally different from my previous role, related instead to electronic architecture, communication within the car and system development, I was delighted to be given this challenge.”

Today the team has 50 full-time employees who are closely connected with their global counterparts but have autonomy over how Nissan engine control software is applied to European vehicles. The breadth of work is wide, with Cli’s team focusing on a range of different technologies: from the idle stop system which saves fuel consumption when drivers pause at traffic lights, to ProPILOT autonomous drive systems which allow vehicles to accelerate, slow down, or even come to a standstill when on congested highways.

It’s not surprising that technological advancements take many years of robust testing to come to market. In some cases, there may be up to eight years between initial conversations about what a consumer is predicted to buy and what technology is eventually selected. Once that decision is made, it could be another three years until it goes into production.

“The operating systems we work on are not just going to sit on a desktop computer in an office, they are fundamental to the vehicle operation, so there has to be robust and lengthy validation,” says Cli.

“Current passenger cars in the European market have over 100 million lines of code in their control units. That far exceeds anything on a smart phone, or even some NASA systems. Our systems have to become more and more complex because of the rapidly increasing number of inputs to consider when controlling the engine.”

So, what comes next? At this year’s International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nissan introduced its Brain-to-Vehicle technology, demonstrating its vision for transforming how cars could be driven in the future. For Cli, the future is likewise filled with technological opportunities, a perception she’s maintained since being a teenager who loved to learn. “My abilities were never doubted. I was fortunate to be in an environment where I was supported to be ambitious. Now, with children of my own, it is my job to help them to understand that many opportunities are open to them. I hope they will be constantly curious and know that the world is their oyster.”