DETROIT -- Ken Washington is likely the only Ford Motor Co. executive, ever, with bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in nuclear engineering.
Previously, he was the top researcher for Lockheed Martin's space program -- in other words, a rocket scientist. But he left that career track last year to join a company and industry with more earthly ambitions, becoming Ford's vice president for research and advanced engineering.
"I've always loved cars," said Washington, adding that his first was a Mustang. "I'm a pretty typical geek. I'm not your typical 'car guy,' so I'm not like a gearhead, but I always loved cars. I always thought they were great emotive things."
A 112-year-old Detroit carmaker and 20-year-old aerospace company might seem like worlds apart, but these days it's more like a block and a half. That's the distance between the lab where Washington worked for Lockheed Martin and Ford's newly opened Research and Innovation Center in Silicon Valley. Though based in Dearborn, he travels there several times a month to oversee a growing team of engineers working on technology for connected and autonomous cars.
Washington calls his experience at Lockheed Martin, where he managed a team of 700 scientists and engineers, and Sandia National Laboratories prior to that, "great training" for his job at Ford.
"There are so many parallels," he said in an interview at Ford's original Research and Innovation Center, in Dearborn. "I had exposure to many of the things that we care about at Ford in my prior roles -- advanced materials, controls and automation, optical sensor systems, complex integration challenges."
Ford CEO Mark Fields' drive to create a culture built on innovation has given Washington a particularly prominent role as the company's chief innovator. Fields appointed Washington, the first of several outsiders he has added to his management team, about a month after succeeding Alan Mulally in July 2014.
Washington, 55, is charged with leading Ford into a future filled with autonomous vehicles, cars that can talk to each other, consumers who want on-demand transportation without the burden of car ownership, and fuel economy standards that necessitate increasingly creative solutions. He describes the industry as reaching a historic inflection point, which is a big reason why Washington decided to switch gears 28 years into his career.
He admits he hadn't paid much attention to Ford until a recruiter called out of the blue. Washington began studying the automaker and, quickly sensing a chance to be part of something special, grew intrigued.
"I can honestly say I've never seen a time when so many technologies are going through a transition and a disruption at the same time in a way that's applicable to a single industry," Washington said. "Our job at Ford is really to take advantage of that in a way that's meaningful."