What do you want to be when you grow up?
When other kids answered “astronaut” or “firefighter,” Margaux LeBlanc ‘15 would say, “car designer.” “Since I was eight, I knew I wanted to work on cars. I took art classes, but I wasn’t very good,” LeBlanc laughed. “I was good at math though.”
Flash forward to 2020 and she’s helping bring electric cars to market at General Motors (GM).
LeBlanc graduated from Colby with a degree in computer science before continuing with the 3-2 program through Colby’s partnership with Dartmouth College, receiving her B.E. in mechatronics. While her engineering program gave her the technical skills to work with the best in the automotive business, she cites her liberal arts degree as what makes her stand out.
“You [can’t] just be in math classes all the time. You have to take language classes and learn to communicate ideas effectively,” she said. “My [Colby] computer science degree helped me right off the bat. It’s the type of thing where you can just get thrown into a new situation and adapt.”
Taking courses across disciplines, from coding to Chinese literature to Franco-American music, gave her the ability to empathize with the people behind the wheel. “Connecting to the customer and understanding [their] needs matters,” LeBlanc said. “It’s not just about creating sustainable vehicles, but accessible ones. You can design a net-zero car, but if it costs $2 million, that doesn’t really help people.”
Electric cars are more popular than ever—consumers purchased more than 2.2 million EVs in 2018, a 63-percent growth from the previous year—but that’s still only 2.2 percent of the market. LeBlanc hopes that EVs become a more popular option for the everyday American. “This vision of accessible, affordable green transportation is my personal goal as an engineer, and GM is an amazing place to make that happen,” she said.
Working exclusively on electric and sustainable projects for cars like the hybrid Chevy Volt and all-electric Chevy Bolt EV models, Leblanc helps build one of several battery cells. “I’d describe it as being the CEO of your own part, as the building block to the battery,” she said. “I’m in charge of this individual part, making sure everything happens on time and on budget.”
LeBlanc works on a team with hundreds of people, each coming together to make sure their part fits in with the rest. “My day to day is interfacing with different groups, and I make sure everything—whether it’s driving program strategy, coordinating suppliers, facilitating design reviews and evaluating technical performance, or supporting testing and simulation—is happening at the right time,” she said. “You have to communicate complex ideas and get the big picture, but also understand data structures, data analysis, and programming languages, [which] Colby gave me.”
Each of the 200-plus cells of the 18.4 kWh Chevy Bolt EV battery represents a chemical lithium-ion reaction, creating an electric charge through the movement of positively charged ions moving from the anode of the battery to the cathode. A small tweak in the chemistry in 2019 bumped the range on a full charge up 10 percent to 259 miles.
While that’s miles behind the average gas-powered car, you can’t argue with cost and environmental impact. “I was spending $75 a week on gas [driving a Ford Ranger], and now [with the Chevy Volt], I spend maybe $30 a month on electricity,” she said. “You have all the torque of an electric motor at zero RPM, so you’ll find some of the fastest cars are electric. And it’s completely silent.”
Up next? She’s working on Cadillac’s new flagship electric vehicle, the Cadillac LYRIQ, a luxury SUV set to go into production in 2022 that offers a dual-plane, augmented-reality, heads-up display and Cadillac’s hands-free driver assistance system, Super Cruise, with trademark high-end performance. With the LYRIQ, GM is debuting a new Ultium battery system, using NCMA (nickel-cobalt-manganese-aluminum) in a modular construction, making it more efficient and using less rare-earth metals.
It’s the Cadillac of electric cars, if you will. Said LeBlanc, “I’m lucky to get the opportunity to make an impact directly on the customer. It’s really, really exciting to be a part of—the best feeling in the world.”
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