All of those sounds you hear while you’re driving your car—the engine note, the exhaust, the hum of the road, the murmur of the tires—are only there because a noise, vibration and harshness engineer allowed them to be. Andrea Martin has made it her life’s work to create in-car experiences that range from the mighty Acura NSX to the family-friendly Honda Odyssey.
As a principal engineer of Honda’s NVH department, Andrea has left her biggest mark thus far on the 2018 Honda Odyssey. It’s her job to make sure that the car rides well and quietly enough for buyers.
NVH is incredibly important, as most of the actual experience of owning a car takes place inside it. You feel your car’s ride and how it sounds more than any other aspect of it, so that’s something you have to live with. It’s something that has to be done right.
Andrea puts a lot of herself into her work. She’s a mom, so she’s able to understand that demographic of customers. But not only that, she’s also very active in helping to get other female engineers into cars as a profession and encourages them to make their voices heard—things that are important for young people just starting out.
Andrea’s been at Honda since 1996 and she’s seen some big changes in the industry for women in that time. Positive changes. But we still aren’t where we need to be just yet, which is why having a pioneer like her paving the way is so invaluable.
(Note: This conversation has been edited for grammar, brevity and flow.)
Kristen: What are you responsible for on the Honda team?
Andrea: My official title is principal engineer in the NVH group. I’m responsible for the acoustics and vibrations of the vehicle. It’s essentially everything outside of the engine itself and anything that touches the engine.
We have a pretty broad range of responsibility. We get a very, very in depth look at the entire vehicle, from the intake, the exhaust, engine mount, the chassis, sub-frame, any of the steering components, bushing components to the tires.
We also have input on the body structure itself. And the materials inside the cabin. The carpets, the dash insulators, any type of acoustic material or acoustic treatment we need to apply like absorption or damping, those kinds of materials.
In the NVH world, we try to break it down simply into source, path and receiver. In a vehicle, the receiver is the driver and the people in the cabin of the vehicle.
We have a couple different sources: The engine, tires, wind. And then the path that the energy for the noise and the vibration is going take to get to that receiver.
We have to consider that path, and make sure those vibrations from the road are not getting into the cabin. We don’t want to feel that. Conversely, we don’t want to hear bad engine noise, but sometimes, in some of our vehicles, we want to hear pleasing engine noises. So we want to get rid of the bad stuff, but let some of that goodness, that good stuff, into the cabin, depending on the target vehicle. Some of our vehicles tend to be a little bit more sporty, some of them are little more luxury. So you decide what you want, and you target those paths as necessary.
Kristen: Are you in charge of the entire Honda lineup?
Andrea: In my current work, I am responsible for the overall noise and vibration package of the 2018 Honda Odyssey, full model. I’ve spent the last four years of my life working on it, and spent a lot of time in it and a lot of the time in the competitors’ to make sure it’s really good.
But in my previous job, I’ve been a technical expert over the materials, which was, like I said, the carpet, the dash insulator, and I was responsible for all of the vehicles that Honda R&D and the U.S. developed. So that included the NSX, the Civic, the Ridgeline. I had some narrower responsibly over all of those.
Kristen: Very cool. How do you gather all of the data that’s coming in from the tires, the wind and everything?
Andrea: There is a decent amount of simulation as technology advances, and it’s advancing very quickly. We do a lot simulation, particularly with the body itself to make sure that structure is rigid and meeting targets that we set for it. We do some aerodynamics and wind noise simulations to understand what those paths are, what that flow looks like.
And then we start with a blank sheet of paper, and say, what do we want? What do we need? We do those simulations, and we start to put together an image of what that vehicle needs to be. And then we go and build it and drive it. And we want to make sure that that vehicle meets what we’re targeting, and what our customers expect. And if it doesn’t, we need to go back, and change it.
But there are a lot of different targets, a lot of different things that we want the vehicle to be. Of course we want it to be reliable, and we need it to be safe. It absolutely has to be safe. So, those are fixed points that we work around.
Some vehicles, like the NSX, we’re talking about a sport car, so for its track-mode, we wanted it to have a real exciting sound. But then when you drive it home from the track, we wanted it to be very comfortable, that you can live with.
Targeting those different ranges can be a challenge, but you need to pick the frequency that you want, the frequency that you don’t want, and then apply the carpets, and the insulators, and the things that you need to bring out what you want, get rid of what you don’t want.
Kristen: I’m very curious about engine covers. What are they for? And why are they so much larger today than, say, 10 or 15 years ago?
Andrea: For one, from a noise and vibration area, it’s most efficient to eliminate the noise at its source. The further you get away from the source, the much harder it is to eliminate those noises. So if you can eliminate it at the source before that path spreads out and goes into all those little nooks and crannies, you can make the vehicle much quieter.
It’s probably down to aesthetics too, I think, maybe 15 years ago, intake manifolds looked really cool, and maybe they’re not so cool anymore.
Kristen: That could be a reason. Was working as an engineer at a car company something you always wanted to do?
Andrea: I was born in Detroit. And I grew up in Southeast, Michigan. When I was a kid, I used to go to car shows every year at Cobo, and I’d actually dream about going up onstage and introducing one of the new cars.
When I got to high school and I had to make a career choice, I actually wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to be a pilot. I wanted to go to the stars. And to do that, you have to have an engineering degree. So I knew that I wanted to be a mechanical engineer. Cars weren’t on my radar, weren’t on my mind.
I went to school on the East Coast at a small private school, University of Hartford in West Hartford, Connecticut. And when I got there, there was a professor who was very, very energetic. He taught acoustics and vibrations, and he did tons of hands-on experiments. We tested pianos, and guitars, and we went to concert halls, and theaters and did all kinds of hands-on testing. And I loved it. I loved it. And then I started working on our Formula SAE car.
And it wasn’t the car that I was interested in so much as the mechanics. We got to work in a tool and die shop, I got to learn how to use all that equipment. I worked with some awesome machinists who showed me how to make parts from a lump of aluminum or a lump of steel.
And as I got to the end of college, one alumni [sic] from Honda came to my school and said, “Hey, we have an acoustics and vibrations department, and we need NVH engineers.”
I thought, “Wow. I can mix my old passion with my new one.” And that’s how I got my job. And so I’m actually doing now what I went to school for.
Kristen: That’s so cool. Are there a lot of women on your team currently?
Andrea: There are a few. Unfortunately it is a little bit rare for women to be engineers, and probably rarer for them to be automotive ones. But it shouldn’t be that way. I personally think that women are actually very well-suited to be engineers and automotive engineers.
There are actually more female licensed drivers in the U.S. than there are male licensed ones. We need to represent that market and what they want. We need their voice in the design process.
Kristen: Why do you think there aren’t as many female automotive engineers?
Andrea: I think sometimes women lack confidence going into an industry where it’s not typical for them. I lacked confidence when I first started here, too. But then I realized that, okay, these guys have their interests, and I have mine, too. Together, we can make a really good vehicle.
You have to figure out what you’re good at and own it. And so I’m a noise and vibration engineer, but one of the other things that I try to do is represent the female market as well, and inject some female interest into our vehicles.
Honda R&D has done a lot of family-friendly vehicles. MDX, Pilot, Odyssey. Women drive those cars, too. And they need a voice. And they need to represented. I try to do that. I try to include the younger generation of women that are coming up and say, “Hey, speak up. I know you’re nervous about this, but speak up. We need to hear your voice. You need to be heard.”
But it’s not just younger women, either.
I’m 42 and a mom, and I’m pretty cool, too! And sometimes moms get the connotation of being frumpy and boring, and we’re not. We have a big voice and we’re a big buying power too.
I think moms have a really good work ethic. We’re efficient. We are a little bit more mature and can be more confident in what we want and what we represent.
We had a women’s summit last year, and we had a panel, and there were women up there who were vice presidents, who have worked at Honda for 25 years. And when I started 20 years ago, there weren’t. It is changing, and we’ve come a long way. I think we still have a ways to go, but we’ve come a long way.
And it’s very exciting, it’s inspiring for me to see it and say, hey, you know what? I can reach for those levels, too.
Kristen: How can other women get into the industry professionally, as you’ve done?
Andrea: I think, one, you have to have a passion, and it doesn’t have to be for cars. I had a passion for noise and vibration. And then somebody said you can do it for cars. You don’t have to be a race car driver to work in the automotive industry. Figure out what it is that you love to do, and just own it.
And then we have a women engineers business/resource group here. We meet once a month. We have formal discussions and chats. We have informal lunches. And at lunch I’ll say, “Hey, what’s going on?” And some of them will come up to me and tell me what their concerns or problems are, and we’ll talk about ways to work through it.
It’s my way to try and give back to the next generation so that they can have an impact, too. Because what they have to say is important, and they need the confidence to realize that.
Kristen: It sounds like you figured out pretty early on in your college career what you enjoyed doing and what you were good at. I think that comes down a lot to exposure. If you don’t know something exists, then how can you ever visualize yourself doing it?
Andrea: What I would say to that is: Be diverse in what you do. Don’t ever say no to an opportunity. I did a couple co-ops. I worked in an exhaust company. I worked for another research company in Hartford and did a lot of different things, a lot different experiences, that I didn’t realize at the time I was learning from, but now that I look back I can connect those dots, and see how they all led me to this, now.
Don’t pigeonhole yourself into one area. I like to call myself a multi-potential-ite. I have very diverse interests. I like shopping and I like cars. You can actually put those two together, because a car tends to be a very emotional purchase. You can put those diverse things together and create a new experience for what the customers and what people actually do when they buy cars.
When I walk into a meeting I don’t really pay attention to me being a woman. I pay attention to me being a really good engineer. And I want to get the job done, and I want to get it done efficiently and I want to get it right for the customer.
The other day I was sitting at a stoplight, and I had an Odyssey in front of me, and I drive an Acura MDX, and I had a Pilot behind me, and I watched a Civic make a left turn in front of me. And it gave me goosebumps because I had a hand in every one of those developments.
There are not many jobs on this Earth where you can impact people’s lives so much.