‘I was begging people to take this on’: Meet the engineer behind BMW's colour-changing car
Australian engineer Stella Clark, now based in Munich, shares what she went through to get support for her idea, including taking classes on persuasive speaking – a skill she reckons many women could benefit from.
What if you could easily pick the colour you want on your car for the day, the same way you would pick the colour of your tie or your shoes?
That could soon be possible, thanks to Australian engineer Stella Clarke, who led the team that created BMW’s new colour-changing car, the BMW iX Flow.
The electric car was a viral hit after it was presented at top tech event CES 2022 in January.
It uses electronic ink technology – normally found in e-readers like Amazon’s Kindle – to change the exterior of the car, allowing drivers to adapt its appearance to fit their aesthetic preferences, the environmental conditions or even functional requirements.
So, you could, in theory, switch between black and white to suit the day’s mood, make the surface of your car more reflective on a sunny day or programme it to signal when it needs charging.
And you could do all of these simply by working a phone app, which triggers the electrical signals needed to effect the changes on your car.
In an interview with CNA Women, Clarke, who’s been working with BMW Group for the last 15 years, said she was “on cloud nine” thanks to public reception of the project, which was born out of an idea she pitched to the German luxury car company in 2019.
The idea “came across positively”, Clarke said, and she was able to obtain some resources to get it started. But for a while, she was going at it alone.
“The very first challenge was getting people on board. It was just tough to get people on board, on all levels, like getting a purchaser to purchase products for you or someone who deals with the legal aspect of purchasing research material.
“Even engineers (were hard to find) – a lot of the people I worked with were in serious development so understandably, they looked at these topics with a serious development eye. This material was not yet automotive – it had not yet gone through the rigorous automotive tests so to many people, that’s a no-go.
“But if you change your view a little bit and look at it as a potential technology that is not yet there but will get there, that’s a good mentality to have,” she told CNA Women.
Eventually, Clarke got what she described as “the right people on board to motivate the technology” using two tools: Prototyping and video-editing.
“You can draw nice pictures but nothing says as many words as something you can show people and say ‘look at this’. I also used Adobe After Effects to show the colour changes. That was how I got people on board,” said the engineer, who is in her early 40s.
It took three years to bring Clarke’s idea to life but you could argue that she began putting in the work to get to where she is today a longer time ago, way before she joined BMW.
As a child growing up in Australia, Clarke said, she never really thought of becoming an engineer.
“My parents were non-studied people so I had no influence from them or my family. I guess in a positive way I was kind of a blank slate. I could let the world influence me and could find out what interested me,” she said.
She soon came to realise that she had a knack for mathematics and the sciences.
“I liked knowing how things worked. Before we threw stuff away, a video player for example, I would want to take it apart and see how it worked.
“My parents were quite old-fashioned. I had always wanted an electrical kit but I always got the classical female toys instead so I don’t know where this technical interest came from,” she said.
Clarke suggested that her passion came naturally because “kids are natural scientists” – a gift she feels should be encouraged in both boys and girls.
“It’s important to show them what they can do, to motivate them. I certainly profited from the ‘you can do it, girls can do it’ mantra. You can show them ... the cool stuff you can do as an engineer. A bit less Math and Physics on paper, but more building stuff,” she said.
Clarke added that when she went to an all-girls school, which she described as “quite forward-thinking”, she pursued the passion.
“There was a subject called Design and Technology, which involved everything from woodworking to plastics to video editing to robot control and there, I was in my element. I quickly claimed that this was what I loved doing,” Clarke said.
She continued to chase her passion throughout her teens and early adulthood, studying mechanical engineering in university and later pursuing a PhD in Germany in the field of haptics, which studies touching behaviour.
“A lot of it was self-motivation. You get into a field you love … You do all the subjects you really like the whole day long then you get more successful than you were at school when you had to do subjects you didn’t like.
“I think success breeds success and that’s self-motivating,” she said.
But even with her drive, Clarke admitted it was tricky finding her way in an industry traditionally dominated by men.
“It’s gotten a lot better nowadays but I remember when I was starting out, I’d come across people that had a harder time seeing women in technical fields.
“I had a professor at university who was … less accepting. Every question I asked, he treated it as if it was really stupid. That wasn’t very motivating. And there was one summer internship I did in Australia at a steelworks where I was the only woman for miles. I received some comments and they were derogatory.
“That’s not super motivating, especially if you’re a young engineer starting out. But you must know it’s not you,” she explained.
There was one summer internship I did in Australia at a steelworks where I was the only woman for miles. I received some comments and they were derogatory
Other than having female peers to talk to, as well as an inclusive working environment that is encouraging, “non-aggressive” and forward-thinking – all words Clarke used to describe the BMW environment she now works in, what changed the game for her was taking classes on communication.
When she first arrived in Germany to do her PhD in 2004, Clarke said she found herself in “a very tough position”.
“I couldn’t speak the language and I had to manage students who were older and more technically fit than me. Something had to change and so I took a course on what Germans call ‘Schlagfertigkeit’, which means if someone insults you, you have to be ready to hammer back.
“You learn how to fight back with words – that’s useful. It certainly wasn’t inherent in me and I can imagine it’s not inherent in many women,” she said.
Clarke also revealed she decided to take courses in rhetoric, or persuasive speaking, because she found that as a woman and as an Australian, her pitch always rose at the end of a sentence as if she was constantly questioning herself.
“We often don’t trust ourselves. Often you catch women talking and formulating questions as if we don’t believe in ourselves. But to convince others, you have to first be convinced yourself,” said Clarke, adding that learning the art of rhetoric helped her significantly and could benefit other women.
It’ll be many years before we can begin to see colour-changing cars on our streets, said Clarke, due to new technologies needing possible changes in infrastructure and regulation.
For now, Clarke is basking in the success of her research.
“I felt like I was going around begging people to take this on and now they’re kind of coming to me. That’s awesome. I’m relishing it shamelessly.
“Last year, it was for me a hobby project … But now I get to work all the time on it. It’s kind of cool.”
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