Tom Watson receives Engineer of the Year award for 2006 by Design News.
Michael J. Ureel - Ford News - May 17, 2006
Leading the Ford Motor Company powertrain team that developed the first American hybrid was a pretty big deal. But when Tom Watson was given the Engineer of the Year award for 2006 by Design News magazine, he was shocked.
"The gentleman who claims to have invented the Apple iPod was a contender as well," said Watson, 44. "I was absolutely convinced there was no way to beat one of the most popular small electronic devices that's on the market right now."
But thanks to readers who voted for Watson among four other contenders, he did. The honor marks a career achievement for the engineer that included all the right experience and ingredients to help make the Escape Hybrid program an amazing success.
"To deliver a hybrid vehicle is truly a team effort, and we have an incredible team here at SMT delivering these products," said Watson, manager, Propulsion System Implementation, Ford Research & Advanced Engineering. "So I'm flattered but at the same time recognize that there really is a team effort required to do this."
The 17-year Ford veteran's career began in the early 1980s at the University of Illinois, where he studied calculus and energy management. He studied velocity-versus-time graphs and learned about road loads on vehicles. After receiving his B.S. in mechanical engineering, Watson joined Chrysler as an engineer in 1984, developing performance and fuel economy numbers.
In 1989, he took his knowledge to the Energy Analysis Group at Ford, first doing fuel economy studies, and later as a U.S. Senate lobbyist for Ford on fuel economy. During this time, Watson gained invaluable knowledge about engines, transmissions, brakes, tires and other vehicle components and their effects on fuel economy.
By the time Ford chairman and CEO Bill Ford launched his vision for a greener, more sustainable company, Watson had 15 years of engineering experience focusing on fuel economy and energy analysis. In 1998, he got tapped for the job to lead the powertrain hybrid team, part of a team of 200 scientists and engineers to build the company's first hybrid.
The challenge of creating a hybrid was very unique, one in which the team basically had to start from the beginning - the ignition key.
"The biggest challenge was making the whole system operate well and deliver all the attributes," said Watson. "We had very tall tasks in terms of delivery."
The team first had to select the right vehicle to hybridize.
"The Escape was chosen for a variety of reasons, one of which was that Ford continues to be the SUV leader in the marketplace," said Watson. "Having an SUV hybrid on that market made sense for our customers, especially those who felt green-minded but didn't want to give up any off-road capability."
The team had to meet several other stringent standards: deliver high fuel economy (36 mpg city/30 mpg highway), perform just as well in acceleration and handling as the conventional Escape V-6, meet emissions standards, meet tough off-road durability standards, and be fast to market.
After five years of work - a fast time to market for a first hybrid - the team pulled it off with flying colors. Today, the Ford Escape Hybrid and the Mercury Mariner Hybrid, the first American-made hybrids, have won awards and accolades from auto industry experts.
"I'm incredibly proud of Tom," said Nancy Gioia, director, Sustainable Mobility Technology and Hybrid Programs. "With his contribution and his leadership, I'm just delighted he's on the team and continues to deliver.
"Tom represents the engineer of the future. He's a car guy, a computer guy and he looks at the total enterprise and system."
In Saline, where Watson lives with his wife, Marianne, and sons Jason and Adam, he has taken another automotive challenge, albeit less technical: He and his sons are rebuilding a 1968 Mercury Montego in his garage. But is it more challenging than building a hybrid?
"Frankly, no. The hybrid is the most challenging thing I've ever worked on," said Watson. "A lot of these late 1960s engines are a cinch to work on. I could do it blindfolded."
His son, Jason, had the project of taking apart and rebuilding the car's old carburetor. In the future, will his sons' kids, perhaps, be able to take apart a hybrid and put it back together just like the Montego?
"I think they'll be able to, I really do," he said. "I see today's generation of kids growing up very comfortable with computers, comfortable with writing software, and being very comfortable with how systems interact with each other via software. So down the road I think you're going to see a bunch of kids figuring out how to soup up vehicles, soup up hybrids, by reprogramming them to do different things."