Davis, Lincoln Aviator chief engineer, celebrates 30 years at Ford
As an undergraduate, MechSE alumnus John Davis (BSME ’89) met recruiters for Ford Motor Company during one of their regular visits to the Illinois campus. A longtime car enthusiast, he hit it off with them and ended up interviewing for a position. Little did he know that his entry-level position in light truck product development would mark the start of a 30-year career that shows no sign of slowing down.
“It’s really been a wonderful experience,” Davis said of his time at Ford thus far. “I’ve had a lot of great opportunities to move through many different roles, so even though it’s been one company, I’ve had lots of different jobs and opportunities to work with great people.”
As a Chief Program Engineer, Davis has overseen product development for several of Ford’s North American vehicles, including both sedans and trucks such as the Medium Duty F-650/F-750. Currently transitioning to CPE of Ford’s Autonomous Vehicles program, he most recently held the Global CPE position for the all-new Lincoln Aviator, a project that began in 2015.
Now available at Lincoln dealers, the Aviator signifies new design from the ground up. While some of Ford’s products share existing parts, the Aviator started from scratch. “I view my role as being the product development engineering enabler for our design team, to allow them to do everything they want to do in the design phase,” Davis said. “With all-new architecture, we had a lot more flexibility than if we were modifying existing architecture.”
The base-model Aviator comes with a 400 horsepower, twin-turbocharged V-6 engine that can put out 415 lb-ft of torque running 93 octane. In comparison, the electric Aviator Grand Touring makes 494 hp and 630 lb-ft of torque using a hybrid powertrain that combines the twin-turbo engine with a battery-powered motor. The varied Aviator models provide customers with choices such as rear- versus all-wheel drive and air bladder versus coil springs in the suspension system.
During their market research phase, Davis and the team tested the Aviator design against competitor cars from makers such as Audi and BMW. For the first time, test participants were more likely to select Lincoln’s model over BMW’s equivalent for premium luxury vehicles, marking a milestone for Davis and Lincoln.
“That was a great affirmation of putting all that time and attention into focusing on not only design as a priority, but on the entire packaging of integrating all the different components to create a vehicle,” he said.
One of Davis’s initiatives was to incorporate a human-centered approach to the Aviator’s design process. The development team conducted user interviews and observed customers interact with their vehicles, then used the data to map out journeys that detailed a consumer’s typical day leading up to and including their actual interactions with the vehicle. These visualizations revealed “pain points” that could be addressed through aspects of the car’s design.
One such pain point was realized through Davis’s wife, Laura (BSBA ’88), who would regularly shuttle children to events outside a busy parking lot. She wanted to make sure she could pull into a parking spot safely while navigating obstacles and watching for other children passing through the lot. “She recognized that the safest way was to pull forwards into a spot, because she felt more confident pulling forward than moving in reverse when there are lots of kids in the lot,” Davis said.
His wife liked to make sure she had pulled far enough forward into her space, but the only way to check her spacing through the rearview camera was to put the car in reverse. “I suggested that we provide a shortcut key so that the driver can immediately check the status of the rearview camera,” Davis said. “You could still be in forward gear or neutral, at slow speed or stopped.”
Any change regarding operation standards must be approved by the safety team, which meant researching interpretations from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). “I had to work through satisfying this customer pain point as well as our internal constraint about whether or not we can do this,” Davis said. “We worked through the scenarios and discipline and determined that we could both fully satisfy the regulatory requirements and also provide this feature to customers who are conscientious about safe operation.”
For students looking to go into industry, Davis stressed the importance of strong group collaboration. “Communication is a huge skill—we can’t overemphasize that for students because working in teams is critical,” he said. “A lot of universities, including Illinois, focus a lot of time and attention on these group projects that have business or prototyping aspects to them, and I think that’s great.”