Meet the engineer working on EV prototypes for Porsche

23 Mar 2022

Valentina Contini. Image: Mark Hayden

Valentina Contini was working with electric vehicles before they were cool. Now, she wants to see even more change in the sector in terms of sustainability and inclusivity.

The transport sector has evolved massively in recent years, with sustainability becoming a critical factor for new developments  – from the growth of car-sharing companies and e-scooter operators to more traditional auto companies exploring the EV market.

Major car maker Ford recently said it’s putting more than $11bn into building new facilities to boost the manufacturing of EVs and Japanese car company Toyota is investing more than $13bn in batteries for EVs by 2030. Even electronics giant Sony is making a play for the EV market with plans to set up a new company that will commercialise its prototype cars.

While EVs themselves are not a new concept, mobility expert Valentina Contini said Covid-19 has really sped up the move towards sustainability within the autotech industry.

“No one should thank Covid for anything, but it was actually necessary to push the automotive industry in a more sustainable direction, less focused on profit and more focused on ‘how can we do something good for the world while staying profitable?’”

Contini is currently the complete vehicle senior engineer for battery electric vehicles and prototypes at Porsche Engineering.

She was one of several guests at the launch of a new report from Vodafone on smart technology and connected consumers at the end of January. Speaking to after the event, she said she wanted to save the world when she was young.

“I decided that the only way that I could do it was by being an engineer and making solutions that would make a better world.”

Contini originally studied energy engineering with a plan to work in the renewable energy space, but she soon realised that it wouldn’t be enough to save the world without first looking at current sources of pollution. This brought her to the automotive industry.

“I worked on a lot of exciting projects in the last 10 years because I’m mainly working on research projects and prototypes,” she said. “I started working on electric cars when no one was really thinking about electric cars, and in the last year or so I worked on an urban air mobility project.”

In October 2019, Porsche teamed up with aircraft manufacturer Boeing to explore the development of premium personal urban air mobility vehicles.

‘Everybody thinks that e-mobility is emission free’

While that project is in early-stage development and exploration, there are still plenty of misunderstandings and misconceptions about the EVs that are already on the roads that Contini would like to correct.

“Everybody thinks that e-mobility is emission free,” she said. “[When] the whole world produces energy only with renewable sources, then it will be emission free. But then again, it’s always a product and the product will at a certain point become trash, so the product itself is a sort of emission.”

She said when thinking about reducing emissions, the entire life cycle of the car and the manufacturing process it goes through needs to be addressed.

“Another misconception is … that people think ‘I cannot get far with one charge in my electric car’. Because most people don’t even know how far they drive every day. The average person doesn’t drive further than 50km every day in total and the worst electric car that you can buy now has [a range of] at least 250km.”

She said this misconception is hard to eradicate because in the early stages of EV production, cars were put on the market too soon. “But it was just, OK, you do it and you make mistakes. You have to start somewhere.”

‘Most tech products are built by engineers, for engineers. And unfortunately, most of these engineers are men’

Contini added that one major thing she would like to see change in her industry is more consideration for the end user of a product and reasons why they use it, as opposed to simply the technology that goes into it.

“Right now, most tech products are built by engineers, for engineers. And unfortunately, most of these engineers are men mainly going from 30 to 50 and, in a lot of the world, white men,” she said.

“So, I think that one thing that I want to want to see change is more inclusivity. Inclusivity in the teams building this technology and inclusivity in how they think about how the technology can be applied.”

Having worked in the male-dominated engineering space for so many years, Contini said she experienced her fair share of discrimination and some level of sexual harassment. However, she said it’s what motivates her not to quit. “I also have a daughter and I want to make this work better for her.”

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic