Floridian Barb Samardzich finds industry's hot spot

  • 04-Feb-2009 02:58 EST
Samardzich said she had to finally tell the engineers tweaking the 2010 Fusion Hybrid that 41 MPG was good enough, so the company could prepare to produce the car. Ford Motor Co.

­Ford Vice President of Powertrain Engineering Barb Samardzich started her engineering career in thermodynamics and heat transfer for Westinghouse. After 18 years at Ford, she's found herself in the hot spot of the auto industry, overseeing Ford’s transition to electric powertrains.

It seems appropriate for her to be there, considering she had to give up another hot spot, her native Florida, to join the industry after earning her mechanical engineering degree in Gainesville and adding a masters from Carnegie-Mellon while working for Westinghouse.

At the 2009 North American International Auto Show, Ford rolled out not just a bevy of electrically powered new models and concepts but also an aggressive agenda for future electric production models. This agenda will keep Samardzich and her team busy for the foreseeable future, thoug­h she concedes that it would be all right with her if the challenge weren’t quite so steep these days.

Beating Camry

The team developing the 2010 Fusion hybrid toiled relentlessly on its calibration, surprising Samardzich with the news that a 40-mpg (5.9 L/100 km) combined EPA rating would be possible. Pleased as she says she was, the team working on the calibration wasn’t satisfied. They pushed until they had the car running efficiently enough to score a combined 41 mpg (5.7 L/100 km).

Still better efficiency was possible, but Samardzich ultimately had to say “enough” and declare the specification final. Development at that point focused on finessing the fuel shutoff strategy under deceleration, she explained. “Forty-one [mpg] gives us everything we could want,” Samardzich remarked, “but they just wouldn’t give up."

Could that mean that perhaps the spec for the 2011 model could be just a bit better?  And if it is, could consumers maybe return to the dealer to flash the computer with updated code for even better efficiency?  While that might be an attractive proposition, “you never want to bring a customer back,” Samardzich declared.

The 41-mpg rating was the result of the team’s desire to demolish the score of Toyota's Camry hybrid, the car they saw as the most direct competitor to the Fusion hybrid. “We said, ‘We’ve got to trump them,’” recalled Praveen Cherian, Ford’s hybrid program leader. “One or two mpg [better] is not going to do it.” In the end, the Fusion topped the Camry by an impressive 8 mpg (29.4 L/100 km).

“In the end, it comes down to calibration smarts,” Cherian observed. “With all of these conversions and losses, the ones who succeed are the ones who manage the losses the best.”

Ford found that on the EPA’s city driving cycle, only 6% of the Fusion hybrid's braking was done with the foundation brakes, the rest having the potential for recovery by the generator. The trouble is that recovering that energy too aggressively creates abrupt, unexpected deceleration that the driver finds intrusive. And recovering it too conservatively leaves money on the table. Finding the balance between the two is an ongoing focus for Ford's hybrid team.

Electric Rollout

Prior to her leading ­the company’s powertrain development, Samardzich was Chief Engineer for Ford’s F-Series Super Duty pickup line. She also won media honors for her prior work as Chief Engineer for Ford’s automatic transmission operations.

But it was overseeing development of the popular and acclaimed 2005 Mustang that Samardzich cites as her most rewarding assignment to date.

"That was a once-in-a-lifetime opp­ortunity—­to redesign an iconic product like the Mustang from the ground up, and then launch it to such media and customer accolades,” she said.

Going forward, Ford’s hybrid and EV engineering team will continue to be challenged by competitive hybrid vehicles, as well as by the audacity of Ford’s announced schedule for more electric drive vehicles. The first, coming in 2010, will be a battery electric commercial van, likely to be based on the Transit Connect, which debuts in the U.S. in gas-powered form this year.

In 2011, Ford plans to offer a battery-electric car to retail customers that it will develop jointly with Magna International. The pure-EV is slated to have a 100-mi (161-km) range, so Ford will be cultivating customers whose lifestyle involves driving in conditions that are within the car’s daily range, Samardzich said. Such cars likely will be owners’ second cars, giving them the ability to choose a conventional vehicle for longer trips, she surmised.

Then in 2012, Ford will introduce a family of next-generation hybrids, including a plug-in hybrid with an electric-only range of 30 mi (48 km). The company plans to build as many as 10,000 of the plug-in hybrids that year, making it much more than a limited pilot run in its first year of production.

These upcoming vehicles will build on the technology used in the 2010 Fusion hybrid rather than introducing an all-new design, because vehicles so near production must have their specifications set and manufacturing planned, Samardzich said.

“You have to be using the technology right now and getting plants ready to build it,” she asserted. “You can’t be inventing that now.” Ford’s first hybrid, the Escape, was in gestation for five years, she noted.

Shared Platforms

Ford plans to leverage conventional global vehicle platforms for its future electric cars and trucks, Samardzich said. She explained that purpose-built platforms would make electric models even more expensive, while sharing a platform or body-in-white with an existing model helps share cost.

However, with automakers and suppliers flirting with bankruptcy, and retail gasoline prices at recent lows, developing expensive new hybrid and EV technologies is risky—particularly given consumers’ unproven willingness to purchase them and tolerate their compromises.

That's why Ford is working with electric utilities regarding development of the infrastructure needed to support charging of electric vehicles in the next few years.

“Consumers make very rational buying decisions,” Samardzich said. “The lack of diesels in the U.S. up to this point is proof of that. The acceptance rate by the customer is going to depend on how the infrastructure develops around electric cars.

“The objective there is to understand how customers use the plug-in hybrid, and for the utilities to understand what it means to have this load on their grid day and night,” she concluded.

Sorting this out will ensure that Barb Samardzich remains at the industry’s hot spot. Though it's not climatically hot, she still can hoist her University of Florida Gators coffee mug in honor of the school’s recent national football championship and remember when that situation was reversed.

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