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May 18, 2021

Women in Technology: Simulating Sensors to Advance Autonomous Automobiles

The demand for increased autonomy is perhaps the most powerful force impacting the global automotive market today. While autonomy represents an incredibly complex engineering challenge spanning multiple functions, perception systems play a foundational role. Automotive autonomy is only possible if the sensors mounted on the car accurately gather information about the surrounding environment and transmit that data to other systems — such as steering and braking — to trigger an appropriate, safe response.

A long-time Ansys customer, Continental has been a leader in sensor technologies for more than 20 years, with millions of radar sensors deployed worldwide. The company’s innovative products support advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) functionality such as lane departure warnings, emergency brake assistance and adaptive cruise control. From windshield-mounted cameras to rear bumper-mounted radars that provide backup assistance, Continental has been a leader in introducing reliable perception systems to the global automotive marketplace.

Since 2009, Cristina Dragan has been contributing to Continental Romania’s efforts to develop and verify lidar, radar and camera-based sensors ― first as a Mechanical Designer, then as a Thermal Analyst and currently as a Thermal Analyst Expert, responsible for the company’s worldwide training in this field. Cristina has been an internal advocate for the importance of thermal science since the beginning of her thermal activities at the company, and she has enjoyed sharing technical knowledge and methodologies with other thermal engineers around her.

Cristina Dragan

Cristina Mihaela Dragan is a Thermal Analyst Expert for Continental Romania

“Before a sensor can be launched on a vehicle, it is absolutely critical that its performance has been virtually validated under every operating condition ― and thermal effects can have an enormous effect on the sensor’s ultimate performance,” Cristina explains. “My role is to simulate the real thermal conditions that sensors will be exposed to, including summer and winter temperatures, but also more subtle physical forces that can create thermal changes. For example, an exposed exterior sensor will be affected by wind or car speed, while an internal sensor will be impacted by the car’s HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning) system.”

ADAS products portfolio

The engineering team at Continental uses simulation solutions from Ansys to design and verify a range of advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) sensor technologies.


In her analysis, Cristina is looking at electrothermal stresses that can interfere with the sensor’s long-term durability and its signal integrity over time. The Continental engineering team owns summer test equipment that can reproduce some car environment physical testing. Still, Cristina points out: “When we have compared our Ansys results to physical testing outcomes using the thermal chamber for validation conditions or a the summer test equipment for a moving car in a road test, Ansys Icepak delivers accurate results.”

Because time is of the essence in delivering new autonomous solutions to the market, Cristina notes that Ansys helps her maximize her contributions at Continental. “I can complete the thermal simulation tasks and also be confident in Ansys Icepak results,” she says.

A Natural Problem Solver

Cristina also leverages Icepak in her ongoing Ph.D. research at Polytechnic University, where she previously earned a bachelor’s degree in Material Engineering and a master’s degree in Industrial Engineering. Her doctoral research focuses on thermal optimization for automotive electronic control units, building on her work at Continental.

With an early affinity for physics, Cristina was drawn to mechanics and thermodynamics as a college student because she enjoys problem-solving. “I have always loved looking at things happening in the natural world, including cooling or heating, and understanding exactly how they work,” she says. “I was not attracted to being a scientist in a lab solving only theoretical problems. Instead, I have always been interested in finding practical solutions that have real-world applications.”

thermal chamber airflow

Ansys Icepak is used to simulate airflows around a sensor, and their effect on the sensor’s temperature.

Cristina holds four patents, has published multiple papers and is a frequent speaker at industry conferences. Recently she developed a Six Sigma methodology for thermal behavior optimization that can be applied across the worldwide automotive industry. She enjoys translating complex knowledge into best practices, which she does as one of the trainers within the thermal knowledge exchange community at Continental that seeks to standardize learnings and methodologies across the business.

Gender Equality Begins with Equal Access

Cristina estimates that the Romanian mechanical engineering faculty is about 90% male, but she has never felt discouraged or held back because she is a woman. “I have four brothers, so I am used to being surrounded by men,” she says with a laugh. “I have always felt like my perspective mattered and that there was a place for me.”

She was guided by her female and male professors at Polytechnic as a young student. “I feel that diversity is very important, and we all have something unique to contribute, regardless of our gender,” she points out. “Both my male and female professors helped to shape me.”

Because Continental also values diversity, Cristina reports that the company’s overall engineering team is far above industry averages in terms of employing women, and the one in her local department is 35%. “The percentage of women in engineering is increasing all the time, and I think it is because younger women can actually see themselves as engineers now,” notes Cristina. “Companies like Continental are giving women important opportunities, which only improves visibility — and allows younger women to imagine themselves in the engineering field.”

Cristina emphasizes that gender equality should never be a bottleneck either for future employees, either for an employer. Just as women should not be discouraged from pursuing math or science, they should not feel forced to follow that path if they are not attracted by it.

“Every person should be encouraged to pursue a career that brings them joy, whether or not that is a ‘traditional’ field for their gender. We cannot force women into scientific or engineering careers if that is not their passion. But we can expose them to every opportunity and let them decide for themselves. We can give them equal access and encourage them to pursue their dream, whatever that means,” Cristina concludes. “I am grateful that I always felt I could be whatever I wanted to be.”

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