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Automobile Essay


Donald E. Petersen
President and Chairman/CEO
Ford Motor Company

Through continuous improvement and the ingenious application of new technology, the automobile reconfirmed and updated its status as a triumph of engineering throughout the 20th century. I was fortunate to witness and participate in one of the most significant stages of this ongoing transformation. When I joined the industry in 1949, automobiles were still literally just mechanical objects. By the time I retired 40 years later they had become complex electronic devices on wheels.

The first semiconductor computer chip went onboard in the mid-1970s. Before long, microprocessors were improving just about every aspect of the vehicle—emissions, fuel economy, safety, security, engine and transmission performance, ride and handling, even seat positioning. Electronics also transformed cars and trucks into mobile entertainment and communication centers.

During my years in the industry, there were other profound changes that challenged the engineering community. Government regulations in the 1960s mandated cleaner, safer, more fuel-efficient vehicles in a rapid time frame. In the 1970s increasing global competition brought a surge of high-quality, low-cost competitive products from overseas into the United States.

American manufacturers were painfully reminded of the fundamental importance of quality and took on the challenge of making our vehicles world class once again. We had to relearn some of the lessons of manufacturing excellence, such as the critical need for standardized, precision-made parts, that we had taught the world at the beginning of the century.

Shortly after I became president of Ford Motor Company I saw a television program—If Japan Can, Why Can't We?—that described Toyota's success in improving quality and gave W. Edwards Deming major credit for Toyota's success. I met with Ed Deming and liked his ideas for improving quality and his emphasis on the importance of people. Peter Drucker also was involved in the Japanese resurgence and emphasized people. For me personally these two men were a major help in forming the ways we worked together to improve product quality.

We began engaging people at all levels and in all functions in what became known as the employee involvement movement in the 1980s. Encouraging everyone to participate and channeling individual and team efforts toward well-defined common goals produced remarkable results. As measured by owner-reported "things gone wrong," vehicle quality improved more than 60 percent from 1980 to 1987 models. Breakthrough products such as the radically aerodynamic 1986 Ford Taurus helped convince consumers that American manufacturers could not only decrease defects but also increase design and engineering attributes that maximized product appeal.

Today the automobile remains the most voracious consumer of new technology of any product in the marketplace. And promising new technological developments, such as the use of fuel cells as a power source, will undoubtedly keep the automobile on the leading edge of technology in the 21st century. But whatever shape the technology takes and wherever it leads us, we would do well to remember the lesson we learned in the 1980s to honor and encourage the people behind new ideas.


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     Essay - Donald E. Petersen

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