Many people equate automotive engineering and r&d with rocket science. For William Powers, it truly was.
Powers, who retired as vice president of research for Ford Motor Co. at the end of 2000, came to the automaker via NASA, where he helped develop the guidance system for the Saturn rocket and Apollo moon missions. While teaching aerospace engineering and computer information and control engineering at the University of Michigan in the 1970s he consulted on the space shuttle program.
Powers, 60, joined Ford in 1979 in the research lab and in 1989 guided development of the Ford Thunderbird, Mercury Cougar and Lincoln Mark VIII.
Power reflected on his career at Ford with Special Correspondent Tim Moran.
One of the things you've preached in research is teamwork beyond the research labs. Is something like the aluminum-intensive vehicle project an example?
In the P2000 lightweighting program, the majority was aluminum. It was a great project, in that everyone was involved from research through the manufacturing floor. We had a steering committee that I was a member of, representing research, and we had members of the steering committee from manufacturing, product development, various team aspects of product development, and research, and we each supplied people depending on what was required. It was a truly interdisciplinary program. In fact, some of the people who were on that program are some of the experts in the company today who are working on programs that will have more production impact.
Is that a hallmark of your time in r&d, the integrated projects and systems?
First of all, I came to Ford to put computers on cars, because I had done computers on rockets for 20 years and (as a university professor) started having students struggling with putting computers on cars at Michigan in the mid-1970s.
I taught the first short course, I think in the world, on control of automotive engines (in 1979) to take, basically, the principles of control engineering that we had used in aerospace and put them on automobiles.
Really, that's when I started meeting people from the industry. Then I came here to run the control systems department, to really get control more a way of life. 'Mechatronics' is a word I started using immediately here. Did you know it's a Japanese word, made up of two English words, mechanics and electronics.
I've always been a believer in mechatronics, an equal blend of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and computer engineering. The pure computer engineer doesn't understand the dynamics of what you're trying to control. Similarly, a pure electrical engineer today will be more concerned with chip design and software, and won't understand the dynamics. A pure mechanical engineer won't understand how to think computers from the beginning. It's not something to be tacked on, it's got to be integral within.
How do you view your own role?
I view myself as a true systems engineer. It's interesting, if you go to any company outside of automotive, and say, 'Do you have enough systems engineers,' they'll always say no. And I think the reason is, whatever your hard problem today, you'll call it a systems problem.
Twenty years ago, the systems problem was the pure engine itself. An engine today, we view it as a major subsystem, almost a component. So now it's how do you integrate the engine and the brakes and the chassis and all the electronics and everything else? That's your system problem today.
In terms of the people involved, you have said hiring the right research people years in advance for the next technology is vital. And you move researchers out into operations?
(Take) power electronics engineers. We hired a bunch of them in the late '80s, started hiring them in the late '80s and have been hiring them ever since. One thing that I initiated, as head of research, was to put it in my direct reports' objectives that they transfer 2 percent of their work force into the operations each year. We can really attract good people from across the world, get them into the company, educate them with respect to the possibilities of operations, not push them out, just educate them to the similarities and differences. Then, the last two years, we've transferred 6 percent. We've never been lower than 2 percent. And a lot of those are mechatronicers and power electronics people.'
What would you view your first success to be at Ford?
One of the first things I did was bring in what I'll call control system analysis software, and got it global, quickly. Because there were not commercial packages, we got a package from the Air Force called 'total,' which was free, but whenever you get free software you know what that means! (Ultimately, Ford chose software called Matrix X from a private supplier.)
Then we hired a lot of control engineers in the early '80s, even though times were tough. And those were what I would call 'mechatronicers.' There were some emerging companies building this kind of software. The two leading packages in the early '80s were Ctrl-C and Matrix X. And we did a two-year evaluation on real problems, then interacted with them, told them what we liked and didn't like - and ultimately chose Matrix X, and took it worldwide immediately.
Richard Parry-Jones was head of technological research in Ford of Europe in the mid-80s. One of the things we did was exchange researchers. One thing I've always believed in is that Ford's strength is its global presence and its global diversity. So in the '80s, whatever job I had, I spent a lot of time mainly building the bridge between Europe and the United States. Then in the '90s it was more Asia and the combined Europe/U.S. technical establishment. And then more recently, of course, with Volvo and now Land Rover within the last few months.
That research and technology bridge-building may have laid the pathways for some of the merger activity for Ford?
No, I wouldn't give it that. I would say the way Ford dealt with Jaguar, in my opinion, was a model that made other companies less fearful to bond with Ford. Our research group has a very good relationship with Jaguar. And we have a little research group at Jaguar, and they have emphasized telematics, we've done some joint things with telematics - the adaptive cruise control that went onto the XK-8. Which was the first. You know, Mercedes kept saying they were going to be first, and we thought they were going to be first, and all of a sudden we were first.
A part of it, I think, was that Jag really loves technology. I won't say they can necessarily afford it, because everybody has to watch how they pay for technology. They were very interested in a lot of the technologies we were interested in. Nick Parker, who's the head of product development at Jag, has had a very good relationship with this lab but also with our Aachen, Germany, lab.
Isn't Aachen new?
Aachen was opened in 1999. That was another thing I'm very proud of. It is a European lab. Its location is by design, namely in Aachen, at the corner of Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. So it's located in Germany but it's a true European lab. It's a pretty exciting place, I think that everybody that visits it is impressed. And we could design it from the ground up, in terms of how we could do research in the next decade.
You've said in the past it's important for researchers to hide some of what they're doing from the company, to do some things on their own, because that's often where innovation comes from?
Oh, the Lou Ross rule. Basically, I think in any culture, any organization, it's always good to have folklore stories that are passed on - and that you really mean them, too.
Lou Ross, at a number of times in his Ford career he was overseeing research. He was asked the question, 'What do you want from research?' And his answer was, well, I want 50 percent to be for the company and blessed by the company; 25 percent I want for the company but not necessarily blessed, because it might be new research that the technologies are not well understood; and 25 percent I want for yourselves.
I tell that story to every new employee in research. And, by the way, with Lou Ross, I reminded him of that story. He said, 'You sure I said 25 percent?' But he stuck by the principle. You want people who will have the courage and curiosity to do that last 25 percent. They're the explorers.
What was your toughest challenge at Ford?
I think that automotive technology is really tough, in the following sense. If we were in a computer company, we know Mohr's law is alive and well, and we were going to get a factor of two improvement in computer chips every 18 months. I'm going to have to change a product based on that technology every nine months or so. I definitely will have new tech projects about every nine months.
The auto industry deals with all kinds of technologies. But we've got to make it affordable to the customer who pays the money. Trying to anticipate a totally new application for the automobile is really tough.
When was the best time for research?
I think the '80s were the 'magic years' for automotive in r&d in the following sense. We had to put computers on cars, starting in the late '70s for emissions. And once we did that, we really showed you could put some pretty sophisticated electronics on board and make it live.
What promise do you see in hybrid vehicles?
The worldwide auto industry will make 55 million vehicles (in 2000). Roughly 40 million in three industrialized societies, pretty high-tech places, with strong regulation. So you've got a high level of technology in 40 million vehicles a year. I say, what year will you hit a million (hybrids) per year? If I'm asking for a million a year, it's only a little over 2 percent. If something hasn't gotten to a million yet, there's a reason. Either it isn' t affordable, or it's not robust, or customers aren't going to pay for it.
Let's take all the technologies that people say have arrived. Hybrids - well, the only two makers were Toyota or Honda - their total production was probably only about 20,000. Well, why isn't their production higher?
If I can't store energy at a reasonable cost with a robust device, it just doesn't make sense. We're in this dilemma.
What are you most proud in your Ford career?
One of the things I am proud of, leaving at this time, is I think I've set up across the world first rate facilities on all the competing powertrain technologies. Everything from hydrogen, we've got a hydrogen fueling station, hydrogen vehicles rolling around; we've got hybrids, batteries, we've got great battery labs, though we don't invent batteries, and then standard spark ignition and diesel.
And then the role of electronics. You know, for almost every engine concept, you can go and find some patent, 50 or 60 years ago, or 100 years ago. Now that I've got electronics, I have to revisit everything, and ask, 'What if I could move that switch 50 times per second, with a little control energy, and not using a lot of power? Would that make this feasible?'