Breaking into the Auto Industry: Q&A with Duke Alum Mark Reuss

December 5, 2016

Mark Reuss F’90, executive vice president of global product development for General Motors, was recently named the “executive champion” for the company’s relationship with Duke University. A graduate of the Fuqua School of Business who also holds an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, Reuss will work to build relationships with Duke in areas such as research collaboration and student recruitment. Below are some thoughts from Reuss about his new position, how General Motors will be reaching out to Duke engineers, and advice on what Pratt students can do if they want to work in the auto industry.

What is your new role with Duke and why is General Motors interested in growing its relationship with the school?

Duke has a tremendous amount to offer in the type of student that it graduates. Since Pratt is a smaller engineering school, students tend to have more personal involvement with what they’re studying and with their professors.

I’m a Fuqua alum, so I’m very in tune with what Duke is and what Duke has to offer. My role is to get the word out about what General Motors is today, what it’s going to be in the future and what the current opportunities are for students. I’ll come to campus multiple times during the year and talk to students about what we’re doing, answer any questions, and also follow up on internships and people we have coming to the company.

This fall, the GM Foundation donated $70,000 to support Duke Engineering student teams—the Duke Robotics Club, Duke Electric Vehicles, and Duke Motorsports—as well as for the development of a new design curriculum. Why invest in those things?

These kinds of initiatives give students experience that you can’t get necessarily in a traditional course. It’s gained by applying what you’re learning in spaces like electrification, robotics and the actual making of a vehicle. Those skills are so important, and those programs are typically filled with the people that we want. That’s why they’re very important to fund—to give those students the opportunities to have that experience.

When you’re looking at new recruits to bring in, what are some other things you look for?

What we want in a student coming out of an engineering curriculum is the ability to self-start, take chances and try things. We want them to use the theoretical experience in a practical way without constant supervision and direction. The innovation that goes along with creativity in engineering is very high on our list.

Are there particular disciplines in engineering that General Motors is interested in?

One of the things I work on every day is the constant removal of the silos between traditional engineering disciplines. A fundamental knowledge of how all of the traditional systems—mechanical, electrical, software, etc.—work in a vehicle is very important, but the integration of those is what’s really key. I can’t think of one system on a car that is purely one or the other anymore.

The integration of those to operate together smoothly is desperately needed and sometimes the only way that you really get that is through an experience or through a course that brings disparate fields together. In the Duke Engineering environment, you have the ability to be better than anybody else in some of those areas I think.

Can you tell us a little about how the automotive industry is changing with the increasing focus on autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles and other new technology?

It’s probably the biggest change since the transformation of horse and carriage to the automobile. It’s that big. It has the potential to change every person’s life, and that’s how we treat it. The piece that is the biggest technical challenge right now is taking precision mapping of existing roadways and infrastructure and combining it with the data that is taken in from the car as it navigates those traditional roadways. This must be done outside of the car because we can’t carry supercomputers in each one. Fusing those different sets of data in the cloud, and integrating that knowledge in a safe way into the electromechanical systems of the way the car actually operates—that’s what we’re working on. There are systems in cars that are put on top of a vehicle. But unless you have deep integration with the vehicle, it’s always going to be a top hat commanding systems it may or may not understand.

A lot of Duke students are interested in entrepreneurship. What would you say to a student about the opportunities to be inventive and entrepreneurial within the culture of a larger, more established company?

When someone asks me to tell them about my career, I say which one? I’ve had nearly a dozen, and they’ve been in different places around the world. They’ve been in marketing, sales, engineering, program leadership and programming robots in a plant. Being able to do all of those different things and not leave a company I think is second to none.

Where else can you go and work with Cruze Automation, for instance, which we just purchased, and Lyft, and have deeply integrated autonomous vehicles running on your tech center campus in Detroit within eight months? You need to have the funds and resources to do that, and it costs millions of dollars. If you are really interested in changing the world, a larger company is the kind of place I think can be very attractive, because you’ll have the opportunity to do it.   

We talk a lot about changing the world as something that engineering gives people the capability to do. Given that our school has many engineers with a strong interest in solving environmental issues, what can we do to make cars better for the environment?

We made the commitment to this quite a while ago when we made the strategic decision to make our own battery chemistry and to develop our own electrification motors. With those two things in our cells in the Volt, we have the lowest cell cost in the industry at about 145 dollars per kilowatt-hour. The next frontier of that is to get cell costs close to $100, which is the threshold that puts battery costs and propulsion of electrification in the same ballpark as the internal combustion engine.

But it’s going to take a car that solves two more barriers besides cost. They have to have a duty cycle and range that fits a single vehicle capability in a household. So we need engineers who can focus on overcoming those barriers of practicality and use.

How does engineering training prepare you to be a top leader?

The fundamental problem-solving skills you learn as an engineer are so important and I also think the work ethic that engineers have typically coming out of school is very high. And generally speaking, I think engineers offer transparency, honesty and integrity, and problem-solving capabilities that I think are admired throughout the business community. I think those are pretty core of what you learn at a good engineering school, and I’m sure you have it here.

Any further advice for current students?

This is the same thing I tell my kids and our employees. I think that winning is important, but winning the right way is very important in whatever you do. Also, that there are a lot of things you can’t control. So you do your job and focus on doing the best you can, and good things will happen if you’re at a good company. People see it and they recognize it. You get opportunities that you never would have imagined. And by the way, doing what you really want to do and being happy at it typically translates into success. Those are things that you can control and focus on.

For more information about upcoming recruitment events and corporate partnerships, contact Duke Engineering’s Office of Corporate and Industry Relations