Jessica Caldwell and I first met on a media drive…
Editor’s Note: Not often do we hear from the engineers who work behind-the-scenes to make our cars safer, more user-friendly and technologically advanced. Even rarer is it to discover those engineers are women.
In an industry where the jobs have historically been male dominated, I think it is important to highlight women who are making an impact in the automotive world. The environment is definitely different today than it was 100 years ago, and women’s fingerprints are showing up throughout current vehicle designs.
This month’s Industry Pulse feature column is all about Rebecca Seiler and Jennifer Shaw, who are both engineers at Ford Motor Company. I had the pleasure of interviewing them both separately and learning how their work impacted the new 2013 Ford Fusion.
A brilliant duo
Rebecca Seiler, Active Safety Product Engineer, and Jennifer Shaw, Driver Assistance Electronics Supervisor, played a central role in the development of new technologies on the 2013 Ford Fusion.
From a young age, they had an interest in problem solving and working in a team environment. Both women had an inquisitive interest in science and math early on. They explored that passion in high school by attending space and engineering camps. That’s where they really got the ‘engineering’ bug. Later, they went on to study engineering in college, using internship opportunities to get hands-on experience.
Why engineering in the automotive industry? “I wanted to work on something that I knew would have a direct impact on people and their lives,” Shaw said. “With a car, a person touches it every day. They get in their car and drive it every day.”
You may not be able to tell the difference from the outside, but upon getting inside and take the Fusion for a test drive, it’s easy to see Seiler and Shaw’s fingerprints are all over the in-car safety systems.
Thankful for the collision warning? Seiler wrote the algorithm and put its capabilities to the test. Think that rear-view camera picture looks good? Shaw worked to improve and upgrade it from the previous model.
Active Safety Technology & Driver Assistance
Seiler wants to mitigate your next potential accident, if not prevent it altogether. Engineers in her Active Safety Division worked on capabilities such as the Fusion’s adaptive cruise control.
“I mostly focus on if you’re going to be in a collision,” said Seiler. “I assist drivers with particular maneuvers – sometimes it’s a less critical situation or sometimes there’s an impending collision.”
The 2013 model is the first time the adaptive cruise control technology has been offered on the Ford Fusion. Seiler and her team were not only responsible for ensuring that the technology worked, but they were also required to make it affordable.
Why? Seiler says that active safety should be for everyone. Safety is not reserved for only those who can afford a luxury nameplate vehicle.
“[It] uses radar to detect vehicles in front of you,” explained Seiler. “Based on the range and other inputs it’s getting from the other car, [the adaptive cruise control] will start to change the headway between you and the car in front of you to ensure you remain at a safe following distance.”
“[The 2013 Ford Fusion] is among the leaders offering this technology on a midsize car in a non-luxury brand,” Seiler added. “We wanted to make it affordable enough to be on a mainstream brand.”
“I really enjoy having a concept where we say, ‘Now we want to provide this kind of functionality.’ We will warn the driver with collisions or pedestrians in their way,” said Seiler. “We always shoot for more. Can we see more? A tree, a pop can, a cat out in the road ahead?”
Love that fancy blind spot monitoring system on your 2013 Fusion? How about the video backup camera? Did you know it’s called an ‘ultrasonic parking aid system’? Jennifer Shaw and her team are in charge of the Fusion’s uniquely affordable bells and whistles.
“The goal of our safety features is to make the customer’s life easier.”
-Jennifer Shaw, Driver Assistance Electronics Supervisor, Ford Motor Company
Ford and Shaw want to deliver these features to the entry-level customer all the way up. “These [technologies] all combine to help make the customer’s life safer and easier,” said Shaw. “We are trying to bring features that you only see in the luxury market in the U.S. to the mainstream customer.”
Distraction-free technologies an added bonus
Ford has long been an advocate for safe, distraction-free driving. With the confluence of in-car technologies and drivers feeling the need to stay connected, car manufacturers are looking for ways to be cutting edge but still remain safe.
Engineers like Seiler and Shaw are focused on making in-car features as helpful to the driver as possible. “If it’s too complicated then it is going to be distracting to [drivers],” said Shaw, “because it’s going to take too long for them to do things.”
For example, Shaw’s team has implemented a camera delay system that automatically shuts off the parking assist video camera once the car is up to a certain speed in Drive. If you’re driving forward, then having a rear-view camera rolling once you’re up-to-speed would be distracting.
“The Fusion is going to be a great example of how our technologies are offering our customers a really helpful and safe environment they’re driving in,” said Shaw. “People just need to get into it and experience it. And I think they will.”
What it’s like being a woman engineer
As far as being women engineers at Ford, Seiler and Shaw both had great things to say about the company’s diversity and support for its female employees. Shaw has a two-year-old and a flexible schedule, something you might be surprised to learn for an engineer working long hours. Seiler’s work has been a little more isolating as far as women companions go, but she says you adjust.
“Being able to see a car when it launches and say, ‘Hey, I worked on that,’ is very rewarding.”
– Rebecca Seiler, Active Safety Product Engineer, Ford Motor Company
“It is definitely a little different when you don’t have any other females working around you. Sometimes I felt like I had to mold into how a ‘man’ would react to a situation and not how a woman would,” Seiler elaborated. “[The job has] all been good, but it’s definitely different than my friends who work in nursing, teaching or child care, where it’s all women around them.”
Inspiration for young girls, women
Seiler and Shaw each noted how supportive Ford is of women and their needs. Ford’s support comes in various forms. Ford makes them feel, as women engineers, like they can connect with people outside their working groups and other women through employee networks and having a flexible schedule to tend to their families.
Both women emphasized the importance for young people to take education seriously early on. They encourage young men and women to get a head start by attending camps that allow them to work in teams to solve problems and to be eager to take an internship in college where they can get some real-life experience before graduation.
Their advice for other young girls and women who might want to do what they do?
- Take school seriously and make good grades
- Look for opportunities to work in groups to solve problems, possibly attending a science and math camp in high school
- Network with people in the industry and secure an internship or co-op to get as much experience as possible
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