Professional athletes and musicians are occasionally heard to say that they have turned their hobby into their profession. Engineers, on the other hand, rarely say this. One exception is Leonard Lapis, an engineer at thyssenkrupp Steering. "I've been fascinated by cars since I was a child," says the Hungarian-born engineer, who grew up near Budapest. "Brochures and leaflets from international car manufacturers were piled up in my room, and I devoured the reports in the relevant trade magazines. I learned German with 'Auto Motor Sport'," says Lapis. "Since then, cars have been my hobby."

For this reason, the 38-year-old could only consider a career that had something to do with cars. Lapis studied mechanical engineering with a focus on vehicles. After his first job at thyssenkrupp in Budapest, he worked for Audi before returning to thyssenkrupp in 2016 - to Eschen in the Steering research and development department. Today, as Senior Specialist Chassis Controls, he leads a team of six that is concerned with nothing less than the future of automobility. He and his colleagues (they are actually all men at the moment) are responsible for the design and deployment of the Modular Research Platform (MRP) test vehicles. thyssenkrupp is using the vehicles, which are vaguely reminiscent of beach buggies, to test technologies that are important for autonomous driving, for example. "It's about driving dynamics functions such as steering, brakes, drive and chassis," says Lapis.

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Leonard Lapis in front of a test vehicle

And it's all about safety and comfort. Lapis explains how his team is currently researching a system that transfers the steering function to the brakes - in case the actual steering fails or is disrupted while driving. What sounds like magic is possible because the steering system, called steer-by-wire, has no mechanical connection between the steering wheel and the steered wheels; instead, the steering impulse is transmitted by an electronic sensor. A side effect of the system is that when it is used during lane changes in autonomous driving, it not only increases safety but also driving comfort. "The vehicle then glides much more smoothly in the controlled direction," says Lapis.

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thyssenkrupp develops components for steer-by-wire

This is all still a dream of the future. The use of steer-by-wire in production vehicles is still hardly widespread, but the steering transmission technology could be ready for the market in three or four years, says Lapis. His team is working closely with various car manufacturers such as Honda, BMW and Mercedes. "We can use the MRPs to simulate the chassis components of many popular models and adapt our developments directly to them," says the engineer.

Two vehicles are currently in use, both of which have an electric drive. Lapis was involved in the development of both MRPs. Essentially, he developed the modular software architecture to suit the agile research purposes. He spends up to ten weeks a year on the road with them on test tracks in Europe - from Arjeplog in the Arctic Circle in Sweden to Zalazone in his native Hungary and Nardo in southern Italy.

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Leonard Lapis, for once not at the wheel but at his laptop

"On test days, I spend between six and eight hours behind the wheel," says Lapis, who has a comprehensive test driver's license in addition to his diploma. He has completed several driver training courses with BMW and Audi, among others, which allow him to test vehicles on different surfaces, even at high speeds and in unstable driving areas. "The winter training on the glacier in Sölden was spectacular," recalls Lapis. He is now practiced in reacting appropriately in almost every driving situation. "I have to be in control of the vehicle, even if a mistake occurs at high speed or I'm distracted by something," he says.

The test drives in the MRPs are highlights of his job. "You have to be focused every second," he says, "but testing your own inventions on the track is incredibly fun." And as an experienced pilot, he can assess how well they are working while he is driving. "You can feel how the vehicle reacts and whether it does what you think it should do."

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On the road with his young Mercedes classic car

Leonard Lapis also likes to drive special cars in his free time. For example, he owns a 40-year-old Mercedes 380 SL, which he drives on vacation. "I've already been to a few European countries in this classic car," he says. That's the way it is when your job is also your hobby.

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