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 in 2022 the ultimate smackdown will take place: Rivian will scale up the delivery of R1T pickup trucks, GMC’s Hummer EV pickups will roll into dealerships, and Tesla should begin production on the Cybertruck. 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.
The chief engineer behind the new and game-changing Ford F-150 Lightning electric pickup truck, Linda may seem like an unlikely leader to be charged with spearheading the most important vehicle in Ford’s lineup and one that is shaping the future of Ford and the cars and trucks 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,” she said, “so I thought this [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, that would make EVs convenient for daily life and that would let them 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.
And 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, one that can do everything the gas-powered F-150 can do, and more, may be the most important factor in convincing naysayers and hesitaters to convert to electric driving.
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, one that has loyal customers and devoted fans who can be vocal about the smallest things, who truly rely on their trucks for work, play and life. “I wanted to take that and elevate it further,” she said, seeing the opportunities in electrification that could make the F-150 owner’s life even better. Diving in to 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 to “offer our customer more. From sustainability– this is a key pillar – to the environmental commitment, which is important to me,” Linda said. But Ford had to really listen to what was important to F-150 customers. “They are forwarded leaning,” Linda said. “We wanted to provide a better tool,” in a pickup truck. So, she 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.”
But they also heard the need for innovation, too. “Listening to the pain points of the current truck, what would be enabled; we heard storage is a pain point, so without an engine now, we can have lockable storage.” A place to put groceries so you 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? A ‘mega power frunk’ for groceries and other items. It has 14 cubic feet of storage, nearly the size of the cargo area behind he third row in the Ford Explorer, which is about 18 cubic feet.
Another key area? Power: “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 F-150 Lightning’s electricity for other uses. “We heard from customers in California who deal with rolling blackouts, so we thought we could we use this in a home setting, ‘intelligent back up power’ that can sustain home power for days on end,” she 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. But if you charge an electric car at home at night, you essentially start the day with a full tank.
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. And if she needs to, 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,” drivers who learn to drive in an electric car get the experience in a different, and in her opinion, more freeing way.
And 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 says proudly. “My daughter selected engineering for college.”
But certainly, she’s given her kids a strong take-away from her career. She 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 great solution,” an idea that is at the heart of the F-150 Lightning.
Dual Cultures Converge for a Singular View: Possibilities that 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 her 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. “I have not thought it about that way,” she said. “I never though of myself differently.” It’s a view that is common among innovators. They don’t see obstacles; they tend to see possibilities and challenges that need solutions. She does, however, 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.”
For Linda, her aspirations took her to engineering school at the University of Michigan and then 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 team is in shape to compete as the next era of vehicles begins to roll out.