DETROIT — Ford Motor Co. instituted a new product development process for the Mustang Mach-E prioritizing speed and collaboration among engineers and designers.
One of the teams behind the car also is unique for its gender diversity.
Of the roughly 75 employees who worked on the electric crossover's advanced driver-assist technology — including a new hands-free system — about one-third were women, a rarity in the male- dominated field. Ford says about 25 percent of its employees worldwide are women, but that figure is considerably lower when it comes to engineering.
The confluence of female minds that helped shape the Mach-E wasn't intentional, the workers say, but reflects Ford's efforts to become more inclusive as it attempts to hire more tech-minded talent.
Annette Liyana manages the user experience for Ford’s active drive-assist system
"We're an incredibly well- represented group," Annette Liyana, 37, who manages the overall user experience for Ford's active drive-assist system, told Automotive News. "It's an exciting time to be at Ford. I know the team really stretched and reached some limits none of us thought we'd be approaching."
Alexandra Taylor, the 27-year-old application manager for the yet-unnamed hands-free system, started at Ford about five years ago after graduating from college. She said this is the largest number of women she's worked with.
"Even five years ago, I felt like the only woman in the room," she said. "Here, I don't even think about it. We've got a healthy mix throughout."
Liyana, Taylor and others helped develop the new Ford Co-Pilot360 technology on the Mach- E. While some features have been integrated into other vehicles, the Mach-E arriving next year will be the first Ford to allow drivers to take their hands off the steering wheel for extended periods of time, similar to Cadillac's Super Cruise system or Tesla's Autopilot.
“Even five years ago, I felt like the only woman in the room. Here, I don’t even think about it. We’ve got a healthy mix throughout.”
The system, available on the Premium and GT trims, will use lasers and cameras in the wheel to monitor a driver's alertness.
Developers had less time than usual to finalize designs. The team had been working on a front-wheel-drive compliance crossover for years before Jim Hackett took over as CEO and ordered an overhaul of the project, which evolved into a rear-wheel-drive member of the Mustang family.
"We came at it from a very agile development mindset," Taylor said. "One day I might be in a meeting ironing out intended feature behavior. Later in the week, I might be on the test track."
Tracie Conn, a sensor engineer who previously worked at NASA, said customers ultimately get better vehicles if a diverse team has a say in its creation.
"If we're facing a challenge and all get together, having those diverse backgrounds, experiences and points of view makes for such a stronger product in the end," said Conn, 36. "It makes a big difference having many different voices in the room."
Ford has been working to add more voices.
The automaker has long encouraged and supported women to pursue careers in STEAM fields (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) through programs such as FIRST Robotics, Girls Who Code and Ford Girl's Fast Track Races.
"We are not where we need to be as it relates to women taking the lead," Kim Pittel, who retired last month as Ford's vice president for sustainability, environment and safety engineering, told an audience earlier this year. "Women are underrepresented in our industry."
At Ford, female leaders include Joy Falotico, who was CEO of Ford Credit before becoming chief marketing officer and head of the Lincoln luxury brand last year; Elena Ford, a great- great-granddaughter of Henry Ford who serves as chief customer experience officer; and Kiersten Robinson, chief human resources officer.
Marcy Klevorn, who rose from the automaker's telecom team to become its top-ranking woman as president of mobility, retired in the fall.
"It's important that companies have visible role models for young women to see that it's something they can do," Klevorn, who was on Automotive News' list of 100 Leading Women in the North American Auto Industry in 2010 and 2015, said in 2015.
Taylor, Conn and Liyana all said they've had numerous female mentors at Ford, ranging from their fellow engineers to managers and executives.
All three expect the number of female workers at Ford to continue growing and for teams like theirs to become the norm.
Conn said she would encourage women in college to consider the automotive industry as a career.
"Despite what preconceptions there might be, in my experience it's nothing but positive," Conn said. "It's a respectful and inclusive environment. We want you to join us."