• Executives might make strategic decisions, but engineers make it all happen.
• Among the global product engineering cadre, more women are showing their skills in team leadership positions.
• We profile three engineers working on core bakkie products instead of peripheral auto show prototypes. These women are making a significant impact.
The engineering lead is a prestigious but stressful position at any car company. Leading a team that might tally hundreds or thousands of engineers can be exhausting.
Engineering team leads are saturated with data and required to envision the correct decision path. That means trusting their intuition and determining which technologies will have the best application and durability for a new vehicle's entire lifecycle.
All new product development projects are challenging. But none are more critical or burdened by customer expectations than bakkies.
The global bakkie market remains immensely strong and profitable – product failures or average outcomes are intolerable.
Bakkie customers are terrifically loyal, but conservative, regarding brands and models. And that's where being an engineering lead on any bakkie project comes with tremendous responsibility.
Three of the most influential engineers working on bakkies globally are women. And they wield enormous influence.
Engineering one of the world's most important vehicles
Ford's entire business thrives or dives on the success of its F-150 product line. It is by far the company's most important product. And the engineer responsible for creating the first battery-powered F-150 is Linda Zhang.
With a background in electrical engineering and computer science, Zhang was ideally skilled in developing the F-150 Lightning. She had vast SUV experience with Ford, being the programme manager for the brand's Explorer range from 2011-2018.
In 2018, Zhang was appointed as chief nameplate engineer for F-150, one of the most powerful positions in global automotive engineering. It was a testament to her technical expertise.
As a credit to Zhang's vision and ability, demand has radically overwhelmed the F-150 Lighting supply.
The woman bringing 24-inch bakkie wheels to market
American brands are surging ahead in developing and deploying battery-powered bakkies, unlike their Japanese rivals, which are now a generation behind on the product lifecycle metric.
The size of America's bakkie market, and its enormous revenue potential, have triggered a staggeringly competitive development dynamic between Ford and General Motors. Not to mention new brands, such as Tesla and Rivian.
Linda Zhang's direct rival at General Motors is Nichole Kraatz. Her background is in pure mechanical engineering, but Kraatz now holds the hugely important position of being General Motors' chief engineer for battery electric bakkies.
Since 2016, Kraatz has been a team lead for the General Motors electrification projects, and before that, she worked as chief engineer on sedans such as the Chevrolet Impala and Malibu. Her experience in large sedans ranks as extensive, having served as vehicle chief engineering for Buick on the Lacrosse and Regal.
The new Chevrolet Silverado EV is an amazingly bold bakkie design, featuring 24-inch wheels and uncannily agile driving dynamics. Due to a clever four-wheel steering system, it promises to park and manoeuvre with the agility that belies its size.
Like the F-150 Lightning, General Motors has broken the bakkie mould with its Silverado EV, thanks in no small part to Nichole Kraatz.
Engineering an 'upsized' Navara…
Our third woman to be profiled as a product leader in the bakkie market is Nissan's Melaina Vasko. A trained mechanical engineer, Vaska is a senior vehicle performance development manager at Nissan. And one of her most notable and recent projects has been the new Frontier.
For years, Nissan had followed a curious global bakkie strategy, with its Navara range being one generation out of sync in its most important market: America. While all other Nissan markets have been selling the D23 Navara for years, American buyers who wanted a mid-sized double-cab were still only buying into the old D40 range until very recently.
Vasko was a crucial part of the team tasked with developing the first American market-specific evolution of the Navara concept. She created new benchmarking for off-road ability requirements and helped deliver the "Americanised" D51-series Navara, which differs from the global D23-series bakkie, also built and sold in South Africa.
Bakkies will continue to be the most important products for brands with a double-cab legacy. As a vehicle category, double-cab bakkies deliver terrific profits at low assembly complexity.
And it is worth remembering that some of the most influential thinkers and doers in the global bakkie market are women.