Ferrari’s new CEO Benedetto Vigna is not “a car guy”. He’s a boffin, and obviously a very clever one. But how does that fit with a supercar company like Ferrari?
To understand the thinking behind the move one needs to look at the way in which the automotive industry is developing. The future, so we are told, is for the world to be filled with smart battery-powered cars, which offer automated driving and are linked to networks. They will have a new level of on-board digital entertainment and shared-mobility features, all under the control of a central computer that will oversee all aspects of the vehicle. The software in these “brains” will be updated by 5G mobile networks.
This will effecively mean that automobile manufacturers will become software manufacturers. It is predicted that in time there will be only a couple of viable operating systems and these will then b used by all the car manufacturers around the world. There is a race in the industry to create such systems, as those who get there first will be able to reap huge profits by supplying their software to others.
That is the theory. Ferrari would obvioulsy like to be one of the winners in this game. To give you an idea the operating systems used in smart phones are Android 47.5 percent and iOS 42 percent. One day there will be similar operating systems in cars.
So Vigna is perhaps the man who will lead the charge towards this vision of the future.
So who is he and what has he achieved?
He was born in the south of Italy, in the city of Potenza in the Basilicata region, to the east of Naples. He then studied at the University of Pisa, graduating with honours in subnuclear physics. He moved on to do research into lasers at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble and then at the Max Planck Institute in Germany before being recruited to join the STMicroelectronics research and development laboratory in Castelletto, near Milan, where he began working with laser-fabrication micromachining techniques. He would spend a couple of year as an industrial fellow and researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, investigating sensors and actuators.
He returned to ST in 1996 to become become the director of the company’s micro electro mechanical system (MEMS) division.
ST might not be very well known to the public but it is Europe’s largest manufacturer of semiconductor chips. It dates back to 1987 when two government-owned semiconductor companies, France’s Thomson Semiconducteurs and SGS Microelettronica of Italy were merged to form a company called SGS-Thomson. The company was later floated and Thomson sold its shareholding and so the firm became ST Micoelectronics in 1998. It is headquartered in Geneva and has research facilities and manufacturing units all over the world. The organisation even has its own university, located near Aix en Provence, in France, where ST employees are able to reinforce and update their capabilities. Vigna studied for an MBA there in the course of his later career.
Vigna and his team at MEMS began to develop a tiny gyroscopic sensor capable of detecting motion in three dimensions. Today these are present in most of our day-to-day electronic devices from our smart phones to our game controllers. In 2007, Vigna’s unit was transformed into a product division and took on a range of new development work for OEM and mass market use, including work on microphones, e-compasses, touch-screen controllers, environmental sensors, micro-actuators, industrial and automotive sensors, imaging techniques and low-power radios for Internet of Things applications. Vigna holds hundreds of patents in micromachining techniques. As a result of these achievements he became a member of the ST Executive Committee in 2018. He is a man with ideas and one who knows the technology available and what it is possible to produce.
So, don’t expect a swashbuckling automotive buccaneer like Sergio Marchionne but rather a boffin on a mission to lead the automotive world…
What this means for Formula 1 remains to be seen.