3.10.2010 8:17 AM

8 Questions for Sue Cischke, the Highest Ranking Woman in the Automotive Industry

Ford's VP of Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering on meeting CAFE standards through "weight loss reduction," on other industries "stepping up" to the carbon challenge, and on the Ford Fusion Hybrid "customer satisfaction campaign" that was not a recall.

sue cischke ford
Photo: Ford

By Dan Shapley

The Daily Green recently had the chance to interview Sue Cischke by phone from her office in Dearborn, Mich. The 54-year-old Vice President for Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering is, according to her employer, Ford, the highest ranking woman in the automotive industry.

You are Ford's VP for Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering, and you've been leading the company's environmental efforts since 2001. In that position, you are the top female boss in the automobile industry – why do you think there aren't more women in your position?

It's a bigger question about women in the auto industry in general. I've been in the industry for 34 years. It's kind of scary to say that but in May it will be 34 years, so I've been through a lot of different ups and downs with the industry in general, but I've had a chance to see the broad industry. In this position you need people with technical skills and there are not usually a lot of women with engineering backgrounds, and that's probably one reason. Which is not to say you can't do this without that kind of emphasis, but my problem solving in engineering and other things has helped....

Are there any lessons you have for young women starting out in business?

That really makes me feel old. I think it's as true in automotive as anywhere else, you see more women involved in all aspects of all companies. For us in the automotive industry, 84% of the buying decisions on automobiles are influenced by women, so it makes sense to have women involved in all aspects of designing the car. Things are a lot different from when I entered the workforce. It's still not a huge percent of women selecting engineering as a profession, and specifically automotive. That's just the way things are and we're continuing to have an open culture to encourage everybody to participate at all levels. You'd encourage men as well as women to take on technical jobs and technical training and background.... We have a professional women's network here at Ford that I'm a champion for and it gives us a chance to network....

Normally, I'd be most interested in talking to you about Sustainability and the Environment first, but I'm most curious right now about what everyone is most curious about: Can we trust our hybrid cars? Specifically can we trust the brakes and the accelerators, given that we've seen problems with the industry leader in the category, the Prius? I saw at least one complaint in the NHTSA database about braking problems with the 2010 Ford Fusion hybrid. And I've heard of reports about unintended acceleration in the Ford F150 pickup. Is Ford concerned about any of its models?

2010 ford fusion hybrid

No, not at all. We have a very robust process within Ford that we do monitor and investigate issues that come to us. The issue on the Fusion was only one complaint.... In our system on the Hybrid (Fusion, pictured; photo by Ford), on some rare situations where there's a brake fail situation, there would be a brake light and chime.... The chime and light will indicate that there's a change in the brake feel. If the regenerative braking, there's software in the vehicle that says if there's any doubt on how effectively the regenerative braking system -- default to hydraulic braking system. It should be seamless, but the pedal travel feels a little different. The programming we did when you should look to this and when you should not, it was way too sensitive. We went back and tuned that up so that it would be very rare that it would ever have to do that. When you would do that and you have different pedal feel, you would get a chime and a light to alert the driver that it feels differently.... We did a customer satisfaction campaign.... For all intents and purposes they all get a letter mailed to their home as if there's a safety recall, but there aren't recall consequences with it. In this case we describe to the customer that this is available to them, no charge. That's why we use that method. The customer will get the notification in the mail just like any other campaign.

Do you think the problems at Toyota coupled with the bailouts of GM and Chrysler, where you started your career, have given Ford a new opening in the marketplace?

Ford has got a good plan that we have in place, and it helps for us to have a successful year last year and we have a lot of optimism this year if the economy continues to improve. We didn't have to take the government money, and we're very proud of the fact that we've been able to do this on our own. We do have a different balance sheet to contend with. They have more debt to wipe out but we didn't go through the bankruptcy....

You've got several cars and SUVs that get better than 30 mpg, but many that do not. What are we going to see happening to your fleet as the higher CAFE standards kick-in, requiring a fleetwide average of 35.5 mpg by 2016?

electric ford focus

We do have a plan about how we are going to approach that. We've been saying all along that it will be some segmentation shifting. We will have the Fiesta. We had the Focus. This year will be the first launch of the new Focus. (Pictured; photo by Jim Motavalli.) That will be a popular vehicle with high fuel efficiency. All the vehicles we're introducing will be at the top of their category for fuel efficiency. Ninety percent of our offerings by 2013 will have EcoBoost engines as an option. That is one area where we direct injection and turbocharge so we boost for power and downsize for fuel efficiency so we're getting up to 20% improvement on the small engine for the large engine that people would have been buying. (Other improvements, she said, would be more electric power-assistance systems, improved aerodynamics, and a "weight loss reduction" of between 250 and 750 pounds on a typical vehicle.) You don't just do one big thing, but you do a lot of little things. We do have a plan that will get us to the numbers in 2016 and beyond.

We expect a new electric car from Ford, based on the Focus. When we will see this, how many and what will it cost?

We already announced that Transit Connect is a battery electric vehicle to be produced this year. Next year, the 2011 battery electric Focus – an all-electric vehicle off the Focus platform. The following year we'll have a brand new hybrid and a plug-in hybrid and a C-sized Focus-sized platform. We have four new electric vehicles, 2 battery electric and one plug-in on the Focus C-sized platform.

Do you believe global warming requires federal legislation to address?

We've been very strong saying we need an energy policy for the company. We're supporting a cap-and-trade system that would be economy wide. We recognize there are a lot of challenges to bring that together.... We're already the most carbon-constrained industry.... We have fuel economy tied to carbon emissions. EPA and NHTSA will finalize rule in March. I can say we're probably further ahead than any other sector. We need the others to step up. We are probably the most expensive sector when it comes to controlling carbon. Three hundred to five hundred dollars per ton of CO2 is the cost of putting an electric vehicle on the road. Improvements on electric generation and other sectors is five to ten dollars a ton. At some point in time, someone has to want these vehicles and with the price of fuel so low it's hard to justify someone paying extra for these vehicles. There's still a mismatch. The environment doesn’t care where the CO2 reductions come from. The economy does.

What's the single most important thing that you think needs to happen to address global warming?

fuel tank

I think we need an energy policy. We need to understand where our energy's coming from long-term.... When I look at Brazil, they made a conscious effort to reduce their dependency on oil with sugarcane-based ethanol. It took them years to stick with the course. They established the right subsidies and gradually got to a point where people are consciously making a choice about whether to use gasoline or ethanol.... We tend to get in and get out, and no one really knows where to put their investments. Where do venture capitalists put their money? Today we're subsidizing oil companies based on blending gasoline to 10% ethanol. Where is that money really going? We have to have policies that encourage conservation and a long-range plan about where we are going to get our energy from. (Photo: Don Farrall / Getty Images.)


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