James Grace

James Grace
Age: 33
Title: Director of advanced automotive engineering, Panasonic Corp.
Big break: At 23, he was asked to integrate a hard drive into the Cadillac CTS, the first GM vehicle to get one.

Your car's infotainment system ought to be as simple to use as your iPad, iPod or iPhone. It isn't, so James Grace is trying to fix that.

As the director of advanced automotive engineering at Panasonic Corp., Grace is dreaming up the infotainment controls for vehicles that might be launched over the next three to five years.

Journalists glimpsed some of Grace's ideas during a presentation at the 2014 Detroit auto show.

One interesting concept: a digital instrument cluster and head-up display that show all infotainment functions. This allows automakers to eliminate the center console screen, and the need for drivers to look away from the road.

Grace joined Panasonic in 2010 and quickly got his feet wet. Some of his early projects: Chrysler Uconnect, Chevy MyLink and Buick IntelliLink.

He says he feels most at home in the design studio. Designers "come up with all these great ideas and sketches, and it's my job to make that work, if I can," he said.

Grace is in a good position to do so. After he got his master's degree in electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in 2003, Grace got a job at General Motors.

GM asked the 23-year-old engineer to integrate a hard drive into the Cadillac CTS -- the first GM vehicle to get one -- and also figure out potential uses for it.

Grace, a music lover, decided motorists would want to play the music on their iPods and Zunes.

That project went well, so Grace was asked to design the center stack, with a pop-up console screen, for Cadillac.

Although he moved up steadily within GM, Grace ultimately decided to join Panasonic because he could have a greater impact on the company's products.

"Panasonic is a big company with resources," Grace said. "But the automotive business feels like a startup, in terms of my ability to affect product choices."

You can reach David Sedgwick at dsedgwick@autonews.com