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Alumnus Abroad

A Q&A with Dr. Ralf Hannappel M.S. ‘86

Ralf Hannappel is Vehicle Programme Director, Electric Vehicles, at Jaguar Land Rover in England.Ralf Hannappel

Where were you born? What do you consider your hometown?

I was born in a town called Duisburg in Germany. My parents moved though when I was 6 years old to the medieval city of Bamberg in Bavaria. Since I spent most of my youth there, this is really my hometown.

Why did you choose to attend William & Mary?

From the time I was a child, I had always wanted to study abroad, preferably in the U.S. William & Mary offered physics and was also connected back in the 1980’s to the German-American Women’s club. That club supports German-American friendship and is also located in Bamberg. As my family was a member of the club, I applied for a scholarship to participate in an exchange program between the U.S. and Germany to study physics. When I was accepted, they selected me for William & Mary.

Did you have a favorite course while you were at W&M?

My favourite course was Numerical Mathematics. I always liked mathematics, and interestingly enough, I could use lots of what I learned later during my Ph.D.

Did you focus on a specific area within physics? Any particular reason(s) you chose it?

I focused on quantum mechanics, a part of theoretical physics, because I loved the complexity of the associated mathematics.

What career path(s) have you pursued?

I decided to pursue a role where I could apply my Ph.D. in numerical simulations of non-linear turbulent flows in the industry. I had joined General Motors in Europe and started off in Engineering, tasked to do flow simulations around vehicles, replacing expensive experiments in wind tunnels by means of computer simulations. Later on, I decided to follow a more managerial career path and also to work in the electrified vehicle space, where I am now.

For some the goal of an advanced degree in sciences is a career in academia. But in your career, your aptitude in physics has led not only to innovations in technology and manufacturing, but also to a leadership role in business. Was that something you knew you wanted to do from the start, or did you discover your wide-ranging skills and interests along the way in your jobs?

My decision to leave the academic world was driven by my desire for speed. I actually was very interested in research, but I always thought that I needed a faster workplace, one where I could turn around things faster and bring something innovative to life. I wanted to be part of creating something that people on the street will use and see. I found that in the competitive world of the automotive industry. After a certain time there, I noticed that as an expert in your field, you need to decide sooner or later whether you want to continue to be an expert in your field or decide to become a more managerial leader. I decided for the latter and another new world of learning began to open-- that of business, financials, marketing and many other areas involved in the development and marketing of cars. Each world was extremely challenging to learn and great to live  in.

You have been a leader in electric car technology. For years, the U.S. auto industry resisted the shift. What do you think has led to the change in enthusiasm for industry and for consumers?

A very interesting question, indeed. The advent of electrification has, painstakingly enough, been mainly driven by legislation that enforced certain CO2 targets onto the automotive industry, rather than by consumer requirements. One can see that the number of vehicles even in the biggest markets in  the world for electric vehicles - China and the U.S. - is small compared to those of combustion engines.

Only in Norway, which is #3 worldwide with regard to total number of electric vehicles, the percentage of electrically propelled vehicles (Hybrids and Battery EV’s) sold was 70% in 2020. The government decided to become green and supported electrification of vehicles with big incentives. In addition, Norway’s electrification is about 98% - last time I read it – and produced by water power plants, which makes Norway independent from outside electricity resources.

Do you think the approach and reception are different in Europe and other parts of the world because of the US “car culture” or is it perhaps a difference in the way innovation and climate change are approached?

I do not perceive the perception and approach to electrification to be very different between the industrialized countries. The issues with electrification of transportation are very similar and are similarly perceived. What is different is the legislation. So there are, for instance, CO2 targets in Europe that stricter than in the US. But in the U.S., you have the ZEV (‘ZEV= Zero Emission Vehicle’) states that prescribe a strict number of cars with zero CO2 emission to be sold by manufacturers on top of the CO2 legislation. So legislation varies – also globally.

The biggest issue to overcome on the consumer side to buy EV’s are beyond the higher price driven by the high battery costs, the limited driving ranges and long charging times when one wants to go long distance. And that is an issue for Europeans as well as for Americans.

Do you have any current projects/passions you would like to tell us about?

In my current role I am responsible for the planning, development and bringing to market of a completely new future electric vehicle for the Range Rover brand working in England. This is a very exciting endeavour, as the complexity and innovative character of working in a big team on such a new product and putting it out on the road is very rewarding.

Do you have a favorite memory or memories of your time at W&M?

The nicest memory I have was actually the student life (sorry, Physics Department). I enjoyed the internationality as well as making many new American and international friends. And guess what? I visited one of my former friends and his whole family in California a couple of years ago. He got his Ph.D. back at W&M while I was going for my master’s degree. He had just started to learn to drive during his time at William and Mary, and I still remember one night he took me to an evening event somewhere on the campus with his car. Man, was I scared about his driving style, but thank God we survived ;-). He is such a nice person, and we are still in touch.

How do you think your experience at W&M has affected your life and decisions you have made?

Being able to get my master’s degree in physics was a very important achievement for my future progression. To have two degrees from two different countries always helped my career, but besides the academic aspect, also having lived in another country and culture on my own definitely made it easier for me to accept other ways of thinking and living a lot more. At the moment I am living in England for instance, which is yet another great lifetime experience.

Do you have any advice for current students?

Go for your passion, the rest will follow. You will spend most of the day with work later in life and you have to live with what you do for most of the day. So go for what you like most.

Is there any advice you wish you had received?

I was lucky to always have good friends that I could discuss all my ideas with, so I think I never missed an opportunity, for which I am really thankful.

Do you think international experience as a student is helpful in future life and career?

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to get to know other cultures and grasp every international experience you can get.

Anything else you would like to add or tell us?

Just one thing that I really learned that I would like to share. Coming to a different culture one always 
compares one’s own habits and culture with the new one. It is so hard not to do. Whether it is the way that in university public bathrooms one can see the feet of people, or houses have a different insulation standard, that people seem to be a lot nicer abroad, lots of tiny things. 

However, I learned that there is no right or wrong; there is no “this is better at home” or “this is better here.” There only is a, “This is different and new to me.” And this living in a different way with different  values makes living so exciting. This was for me the most important lesson that I learned having been to William & Mary.

I am really grateful for the possibility having spent a year in the USA and especially in such an incredibly nice environment like William & Mary.