The autonomous vehicle industry isn’t limited to Silicon Valley — innovations are happening all over the world, from Austin, to Miami, to Boston, to Germany, to Singapore, and beyond. The Women in Autonomy in Detroit series spotlights women working on autonomy in one of the longstanding hubs of automotive innovation: Detroit. Each interview in this series is an opportunity to get to know one of our members in the Motor City and the work they’re doing for safer, more efficient transportation.
In this installment, we sat down with Kristin Slanina, managing director at Charge Across America, a cross-country electric vehicle race taking place from October 31 to November 9, 2021. Kristin has been working in autonomous vehicles and mobility since the early days, starting with the Solar Car Team at MIT, to two decades at Ford, to consulting — and back to racing new vehicle technologies.
Can you give a brief overview of your career?
I studied mechanical engineering in a five-year bachelor/masters program at MIT — my favorite class was the design class 2.007, where every student was given the same kit of materials to build a machine to compete in a contest at the end of the semester. The catalyst to my automotive career was the 1991 MIT Solar Team. Then, when I was finishing up my graduate year in mechanical engineering, I interviewed in three different divisions at Ford and chose the engine division. I was sent to Germany for a three year assignment, and was promoted to supervisor at the Cologne engine plant. Then I came back to the U.S. — I was basically in the engine division and powertrain for the first 12 years of my career.
And then my role morphed into strategy and planning, first in powertrain and then in advanced technology. Ford sent me to work at MIT for two years, being director of the Ford MIT Alliance. And that was just fantastic. It really opened my mind to all the different areas of the company. That led into another role in customer-visible revenue-generating features. Which I look at as a pivot point, it was my first experience with marketing and thinking about innovation in a different way: How do you innovate and prioritize things customers might want in the car and pay for?
My last five years at Ford I worked in the global research department to really look at near-, mid- and long-term plans. And that was my first real deep dive into autonomous technology. I needed to get an understanding of what existed today and what the plans and thoughts were for the future. That was my first real exposure to autonomous, connected, electric, as well as fuel cell technologies.
Then I was asked to do the blueprint for mobility — it pivoted that foundation into a different level of looking at how this technology is going to create new business models and new ways of people and goods moving and those new opportunities, as well as what role a company like Ford would play in this new future. And, being at Ford, we had to look at how to manage the overlay of the new without a major disruption — it was kind of a fine art.
Then I heard that Ernst and Young was starting a global practice for mobility. Consulting always intrigued me, and when I got the position it just really resonated with me. It also gave me better business acumen. I had to talk to all the different sectors. I got to meet really good people and better understand the methodologies they had in approaching a variety of sectors, like smart cities, government, finance and blockchain. It was really fascinating to be exposed to things outside of automotive to better understand and think through the implications and opportunities.
All these experiences led me to where I am today. After 29 years of being in the industry, my motivation is now: How do we accelerate this technology and consumer acceptance and adaptability, as well as how do we start bringing the ecosystem players together? The Charge Across America race is a really good way of showcasing and generating excitement, which I think will lead to better acceleration of acceptance and openness, and new partnerships to advance things. Let’s accelerate this whole new change that we’ve seen go on now for 10 years and make much more efficient use of our assets. We need to look at sustainability and accessibility for people. I truly believe that technology can really enable that.
What, in particular, interested you about autonomous vehicle technology?
I understand the complexities of cars. I remember taking a class at MIT that was about brain and cognitive science. Computers are very good at thinking, but when you think of the brain and all the inputs you assess — it’s just fascinating to me that we’re trying to make machines do that processing for us and trust it. When we were first talking about the technology and the approach, I was like, Wow, that’s really cool. So just from my engineering background and experience, I found it a fascinating challenge — people amaze me at how smart we are at figuring things out.
What aspects of your career have been positive/surprising?
I could never have predicted my career path, ever. One of the things that surprised me along the way is that I didn’t really have to look for jobs, I always got knocks on the door. If you have an openness for that, but you’re also really focused in the present, that’s how that happens.
What types of challenges have you faced in your career? How have you managed those?
I have three boys, so that has definitely been something to manage. I wasn’t sure how that was going to work, I was just optimistic that it would. When I was pregnant with my first, I was doing a lot of soul searching about working full time or part time, because there were opportunities to work a reduced schedule with reduced pay and reduced benefits. But I was really concerned about my long term career and what that would mean.
Then, there were two managers in the engine division — one was a woman and one was a man — who decided to work part-time and share a position. I was floored, I looked at it as a message. That was the catalyst for my decision to work a three day a week schedule and get a job-share partner. I did that for nine years as I balanced the three kids. Then I had to navigate going back full time.
I also believe in simplifying my life as much as possible. So I purposely lived only two miles from work — time, for me, was of the essence. I could drive to school for parent teacher conferences and be back at work all within 30 minutes, and still feel like a parent and there for my kids. It was a balancing act.
What have been the advantages of being a woman in your role?
I never felt like there was any advantage at all, and many times I felt there was a disadvantage and an exclusion. But, now that I’m a little bit wiser, I can look at it a little differently. Women are inherently more communicative and intuitive and there are advantages to that. There are processes you have to follow, and when I heard a no, or a time duration that would be too long, I was all about, How do I figure out how to work within the system to get this done faster? I was always able to get things done faster because of the relationships I had, there was more willingness to work with me. But I honestly never felt like it was an advantage during my career.
Have you observed any differences in working in autonomy in the Detroit area vs. Silicon Valley?
There’s definitely different headsets. The Detroit area is an old, long-standing industry. It’s got very traditional processes and very traditional mindsets. There are a lot of people who have spent their entire career there. With Silicon Valley, it’s a very untraditional thought process — I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone in Silicon Valley who’s said they would work at their company for 30 plus years. It’s just a very different headset, and that breeds different decisions and processes. It’s a very night and day kind of dichotomy.
What other changes or trends, if any, have you noticed in the industry over the course of your career?
I remember going into Ford’s Dearborn engine plant when I was doing my rotations program and they hadn’t renovated it. It just felt very dark and very loud, just a very different feel from a clean room, high tech office. There’s a lot that’s happened now. Plants are becoming brighter, they’re making it a much different type of atmosphere than when I first walked in there.
Then when you think of the opening of the door, like when I started in mobility at Ford in 2012, that’s really when there was that acceleration of: How will people and goods move differently, and what is our role? And that’s when you have automakers making these investments in things like subscription models and electric vehicles. I also see a lot of parallels with companies like Uber and Lyft in how disruption has completely flipped established rules and regulations and laws because it's better for people and people like it.
What are your long-term goals?
Well, after almost 30 years, what I’d like to do is get away from traditional full time work and do more of what I call dabbling — being on a couple of public boards, doing talks and speaking events, potentially writing a book. And things like this Charge Across America race, I think it’s totally fun and it resonates with me. So I’m on this different path of what I want to do now, but still have a positive impact on the world and make a difference.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to enter this field?
I would recommend that they do some exploration and talk to people. I always think that shadowing, even as a student, is a great idea. Internships are awesome experiences to let you understand if this is really what you want to do. And I would look at it for the near term, nothing is forever. My career started one way and ended a totally different way. Don’t worry if you don’t have it all mapped out. It’s about being present in what you’re doing currently and being open to opportunities that knock on your door.