Innovation emerged as a key theme during a presentation featuring Ford CEO and President Alan Mulally.
Mulally, who graduated with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from KU in 1968 and ’69 respectively, was back on the University of Kansas campus in May to help celebrate the 70th Aerospace Engineering Reunion. After speaking on the future of transportation for 7 minutes, Mulally converted the event into a question and answer session for another hour.
Although no topic was off-limits, the tech-savvy crowd focused on emerging trends, transportation, innovation, infrastructure and aviation.
“We have a lot of room to improve the internal combustion engine,” Mulally said. “It’s not so much that we’re short of fossil fuels. … So you’re going to see more internal combustion improvements whether they’re petrol or diesel, a lot of direct fuel injection a lot turbo charging, more lightweight materials – we’re moving from steel to aluminum alloy – a lot of integrated electronics – especially the systems integration on the vehicles.”
But that innovation has to be proven before it reaches the market. Case in point, a question about automated driving elicited a lukewarm response. Mulally indicated the technology isn’t up to the standards it should be before it’s cut loose on the population.
“I think it’s very exciting. I think the technology is absolutely right on, but you’ll get more of the automated features in a Ford car than any other maker … We just keep adding, keep making drivers better, we automate the features that actually allow better drivers. We want to be very careful as we develop systems and also the infrastructure that goes with it. … I really think that by chasing that enabling technology and developing it, we’re going to save a lot of lives and make vehicles safer for both airplanes and cars.”
When asked about improvements to infrastructure, Mulally was blunt about the challenges faced in the United States.
“The most progressive work that we see worldwide is in China.” With massive populations migrating from rural to urban areas, the country is responding, he said. “They are taking it so seriously about how to create livable cities. It’s not by just putting more people in, more cars in. People have to be able to move around. There’s always going to be a market for cars … but I think China is a highlight to the real issues to your question: the pollution, the congestion. So they are all over it. At Chongqing, the subways are going in. The trains are going in. They’re connected to everything else. It’s just fantastic, but they HAVE to do it. It’s a necessity. I think the United States will gradually get to that (infrastructure improvement), but usually that’s the last thing that get’s funded, right? It’s the last thing that gets funded in the United States.”
Mulally’s frank observations on infrastructure investment shifted to the positive news about innovation and the role manufacturing plays in the economy.
“No country has ever had a sustainable long-term great future without a really strong manufacturing base. Seventy percent of all research and development in the United States today is associated with manufacturing. All the innovation, all the technology to solve all the issues that we care about are going to be led by technology and innovation.”
And that’s good news for engineers, he said.
“Do you feel loved? As engineers? Well, you ought to feel loved, because you’re the solution to all the big deals in our world today, you’re the solution.”