Nothing on wheels says America like the Ford F-150. So electrifying the best-selling vehicle in America was no small challenge. The task fell to Linda Zhang, who first rode in a car as an 8-year-old after emigrating from China to the United States.
Zhang grew up to become an electrical engineer at Ford. Recently, the electric F-150 Lightning, for which she is the chief engineer, has generated quite a bit of buzz. President Joe Biden took it for a spin in May after Zhang gave him a personal walk-through. “This sucker’s quick,” Biden told a pack of reporters.
It’s also versatile. The pickup can power your house in a blackout or serve up a tailgate party from its “mega-power frunk,” a cavernous compartment up front where the engine would normally be.
More than 150,000 prospective buyers have paid for nonbinding reservations, including many who’ve never owned a truck, or a Ford. As a result of the reception, the carmaker is doubling capacity at its factory in Dearborn, Mich., before the pickup launches next spring.
Zhang, 44, says the entire experience has been “surreal,” especially the meeting with the president. She spoke with Bloomberg about the pickup and her personal journey. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why do you think so many non-traditional buyers are signing up for the F-150 Lightning?
We’re providing the customer with functionality that they can really only get from electrification. Being able to use that power from the vehicle to either provide backup power for their home, or at a tailgate, or at a job site, or at a camp site — those are cool functionalities that you’ve really never had before in any vehicle.
Typically, fuel savings are a prime selling point for an electric vehicle. Were you trying go beyond that?
It’s definitely not a fuel-economy story. This truck is not about that. You’re not going to change hearts and minds with just a compliance, fuel-economy solution. People really want their trucks to be great tools, whether it’s for the weekend job or to tow a boat to their lake house. We had to give them something they would fall in love with and be excited about, not just a battery on wheels.
How did you come up with the idea for the Mega Power Frunk?
Frunk is not necessarily a new idea. What’s unique for us is, what can you do with this frunk? We did a bunch of clinics with our customers. We started asking, what else could you do from a work and a fun perspective? They’d say, “I’d love to use this area as a bin for beverages” — pop, of course. “What about a plug so we can drain it?” Some of our customers told us flat-out that if they can fit golf clubs in there, they would keep them in their truck 100% of the time.
What was it like, as someone who immigrated here as a child from China, to be sitting with the president of the United States, giving him a private preview of your truck?
It was surreal. I was really honored to be able to represent the company, to be able to show him the truck and get quick feedback from him. Looking back on moving here when I was 8 years old and riding in a car for the first time and growing up in the Midwest, it’s pretty cool.
Tell us about that first car ride when you arrived in the U.S. in 1985.
My dad was in school at Purdue getting his doctorate in civil engineering, and he borrowed a friend’s car to pick us up from the O’Hare airport in Chicago. I still remember it was dark and a three-hour drive. Just seeing the lights on the road, and seeing how clean everything was and just sitting in the back of that vehicle, it felt like I was in a fairy tale.
What brand of car was it?
I don’t know because I didn’t really know my alphabet then and I definitely didn’t know cursive. I just remember it was this pine-green color. And it was awesome. It felt like a carriage.
Did that light a spark in you that put you on the path to become an automotive engineer?
Oh, yeah, for sure. That was definitely an inspirational moment for me. I viewed the car as just such a piece of technology. It was the first time I rode in it, so for me it might as well have been a spaceship. It just had all these lights and knobs. I didn’t fall asleep because the adrenaline was flowing and I was just so excited. I remember it distinctly.
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