Electrifying the Auto World on Her Terms: What Drives Her, Linda Zhang, Ford F-150 Lightning Chief Engineer

Linda Zhang Featured Image

When you see more possibilities than obstacles, you can change the world.

The world of electric cars is about to hit a tipping point. That’s because the ultimate smackdown is taking place: Rivian scaled up the delivery of R1T pickup trucks, GMC’s Hummer EV pickups rolled into dealerships, and Tesla should begin production on the Cybertruck mid-2023. That’s a lot of firepower lined up to win the electric vehicle race, and one that Ford has taken a stake in with a secret weapon of its own: Linda Zhang and the Ford F-150 Lightning.

Linda is the chief engineer behind the new and game-changing Ford F-150 Lightning electric pickup truck. She may seem like an unlikely leader to be charged with spearheading the most important vehicle in Ford’s lineup, shaping the future of Ford and the vehicles it produces. 

But really, she’s not unlikely at all. Linda has been on this path for a while. Curiosity, possibilities and a desire to find new ways to do necessary things has driven her throughout her career.

“In school, I dabbled in solar cars,” said Linda, “so I thought this [Ford F-150 Lightning development project] would be good.”

Earlier in her career at Ford, she also worked on electric cars and “the enablers to get EVs off the ground.” That meant looking for the things that would get customers excited about electric cars. What would make EVs convenient enough for daily life to eventually replace popular cars and trucks, rather than exist merely as an alternative?

We got a tour of the Ford F-150 Lightning with Linda Zhang. 

In that realm, the Ford F-150 was the ideal candidate for her next era of leadership: Development of the F-150 Lightning. A successful electric pickup truck that can do everything the gas-powered F-150 can do, and more, might be the most important factor in convincing naysayers to convert to electric driving.

Related: Meet the Future of Hauling: The All-Electric Ford F-150 Lightning

2022 Ford F-150 Lightning Platinum Winning At Life. Photo By Ford

2022 Ford F-150 Lightning Platinum winning at life. Photo: Ford

Taking on the Ultimate Challenge: Evolving the F-150 in the Electric Era

“F-150 is great,” Linda said about Ford’s number one selling vehicle. It has loyal customers and devoted fans who can be vocal about the smallest things. These are people who truly rely on their trucks for work, play and life.

“I wanted to take that and elevate it further,” she said. Linda saw the opportunities in electrification that could make the F-150 owner’s life even better. Diving into turning the F-150 into the Lightning “was super exciting for me. It offers that iconic product and a bit of white space to be able to play,” she said. “Being an electrical engineer, I was excited to work on this.”

The project had to not just electrify the F-150, but offer the customer more, “From sustainability– this is a key pillar – to the environmental commitment, which is important to me,” Linda said. Of course, Ford had to really hear what was important to F-150 customers. So, Linda and her team spent a lot of time with current F-150 customers, listening and learning. 

“Some of what they said, we knew. We heard that this needs to be a truck first, so the ‘Ford tough’ aspect is important.”

New Innovations and Accommodations in the Ford Lightning

However, they also heard the need for innovation. “We heard storage is a pain point, so without an engine now, we can have lockable storage,” Linda explained. People desired a place to put groceries, so they don’t have “kids stepping on the bread,” as many truck owners found when their kids had to share the same space as the weekly shopping haul.

The result? The new Ford Lightning has a ‘mega power frunk’ for groceries and other items. It has 14 cubic feet of storage. That’s nearly the size of the cargo area behind the third row in the Ford Explorer, which is about 18 cubic feet.

Power was another key area. “Being able to leverage the battery and pull from it when you want,” was a possibility that Linda and her team heard and put high on the wish list. The goal was to allow customers to access the Ford Lightning’s electricity for other uses.

“We heard from customers in California who deal with rolling blackouts, so we thought we could use this in a home setting, ‘intelligent backup power’ that can sustain home power for days on end,” Linda said.

But maybe the biggest pain point that the F-150 Lightning solves is “an empty tank at the start of the day.” It can be disruptive when you have to stop and get gas at the start of your day. However, if you charge an electric car at home at night, you essentially start the day with a full tank. 

Related: Are Electric Cars Actually Better for the Environment?

Evolving Cars and Trucks for the Next Generation of Drivers — and Engineers

Being able to recharge a car at home is something that Linda has come to appreciate with teen drivers in the family who, as teens can be known to do, *occasionally* return the car on ‘E.’ “The nice thing is that you don’t have to worry about it unless you didn’t plug it in,” Linda laughs. 

Alleviating the need to fuel the family’s Mustang Mach E during the day leaves her daughter with more freedom to go where she needs, when she needs. If necessary, she can stop at a fast charger and replenish the battery quickly. 

Learning to charge a car rather than stopping at a gas station is just one of the ways that Gen Z drivers are learning to drive differently than their parents, Linda said. From “one-pedal driving and regenerative braking, slowing down faster” than you might with a foot on the brake, to the “nimbleness of the vehicle that makes it responsive getting on a highway or accelerating,” people who learn to drive in an electric car get the experience in a different, and in her opinion, more freeing way.

That freedom may be part of what inspired Linda’s daughter and son to pursue math and science. “I think both will be engineers,” she said proudly. “My daughter selected engineering for college.” 

Certainly, she’s given her kids a strong take-away from her career. Linda hopes they see that if you “work hard and try to learn as much as you can, be curious, you can go into an area you love. And you might as well love what you do. Don’t be afraid to ask the question. If everyone asks, we can come up with a great solution.” That’s an idea at the heart of the Ford F-150 Lightning.

Related: How to Decide if an Electric Car Is Right for Your Lifestyle

Linda Zhang And President Biden. Photo By Ford

Linda Zhang and President Biden. Photo: Ford

Dual Cultures Converge for a Singular View: Possibilities the Future Holds

Growing up in Indiana, Linda developed a love for engineering and the automotive industry, but also American culture. Her father moved the family to Indiana from China for a teaching position at Purdue University and then held engineering roles at Ford. She grew up delighting in American culture, from television to fast food to cars. 

When I asked how her native Chinese culture and her adopted American culture shaped her as an engineer, Linda almost didn’t know how to answer the question. She never saw herself as different. It’s a view that is common among innovators. They don’t see obstacles; they tend to see possibilities and challenges that need solutions. However, Linda does see herself as one of a diverse group of voices on her team.

“We work together as a team to solve problems. I don’t think of myself as being different. Everyone has a different view,” she said. “And that blurs the blind spots.”

Her Journey to Ford

Linda’s aspirations took her to engineering school at the University of Michigan. Then, she was off to Ford’s College Graduate program, a two-year training program that lets recent graduates experience different areas of the company before they decide on a career direction.

“I loved the college grad program. Even 25 years ago, it was an opportunity that no one else offered. For the first two years, I got to work in different areas for four to six months, learning different aspects of the company. I was able to see what was important to me. It gave me a sense of why doing something I love” is worthwhile and the greater contribution that can be made. 

“It’s been a fun journey,” Linda said. “I’m honored to represent the team on this. A lot of people did a great job planning, engineering, on the execution.” And the Ford F-150 Lightning team is in shape to compete as the next era of vehicles begins to roll out. 

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Journalist, entrepreneur and mom. Expertise includes new cars, family cars, 3-row SUVs, child passenger car seats and automotive careers... More about Scotty Reiss