A wide-eyed six year old named Mike Tinskey was handed a brightly colored, tangled mess of extra phone wires by a technician working on the line. His mom wasn't in the room, so after the technician left, Tinskey unraveled the blue, red, yellow, green spaghetti of wires and put it all around the sides of his living room — then plugged both ends into the outlet.
"I can see the flame traversing the entire living room, and it singed the carpet — this shag carpet, I could see it just melted," he said.
Laughing at the memory, Tinskey leans back in the chair in his office at Ford Headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan. He joked that the story was irrelevant, but it wasn't. It was his first experience with energy.
As Ford's global director of vehicle electrification and infrastructure, Tinskey runs a small but growing part of the auto company: the clean-tech group.
"We're focused on sustainability and how technology can help improve the planet," he said.
The team concentrates heavily on waste, and focuses most of their time on electrification because it has such a huge impact.
Electric motors have always been an interest of Tinskey's; he even pointed out a scar on his arm from an flying off a bicycle ter fastening some sort of self-made motor to it. He earned a bachelors and masters degree in electrical engineering from Georgia Tech, and later an MBA in finance from the University of Michigan.
TInskey worked for Ford right out of college, and when he started, he was immediately offered a few weeks to creatively address a project, to think openly and freely about a topic of his choice. He wanted to make the engine run more efficiently, and he created the algorithms to do so.
The idea — to make the fuel pump more efficient so that it didn't waste vapor — caught on and was used across the company. After working in controls, Tinskey then moved to the business side of the company. Ford wanted to build partnerships in clean technology and move forward with electrification, and they wanted to use his business and engineering expertise. From that point on, he grew the clean technology and electrification team.
"This is sort of a coming home in terms of combining sustainability and technology and being able to do what I think is some impactful work," he said. "The team has a similar background. One of the things I like to say is the people that join this team generally approach us before we have an opening. They have a passion for it."
And that passion is important, because planning and building electric vehicles is a long, slow process. He said the most exciting project he's worked on in his career was also the least exciting: the standards.
"Working on industry standards is similar to working out - it isn't fun when you are at the gym, but it sure does feel good later. Similarly, working with your competitors and trying to agree on every details for common standards is about as fun as a root canal. However, the results can be tremendously impactful. Every time I see a customer pull up to a public charge station I know that I helped make that common plug happen," he said.
When Tinskey talks about his work with electrification, it all comes back to the big picture. The next generation of technologies that he and others in the industry are working on are going to be even more harmonized. Because, in the end, everyone is working toward the same goal.
"We're all rooting for each other. It goes that far. We all want to see that market succeed because it's — from an efficiency standpoint — the right thing to do," he said.
And the technology is right on the cusp of going mainstream, Tinskey is convinced. Looking at the data, he can see that. One of his biggest sources of pride at Ford is that they can track how many electric miles their customers drive, and he keeps track.
Ford vehicles recently hit 100 million electric miles, and 34% of those were carbon-free. The company is now seeing half a million all electric miles per day. In addition, the electric and hybrid cars are selling better. The Fusion hybrid was up 40% in May 2014 and the C-MAX has been up 34% month over month. The electric vehicles aren't doing as well as hybrids, but they are selling better, and Tinskey is confident it is gradually increasing. The Fusion Hybrid and Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid were up 59% in 2014, marking an all-time sales record in June with 8,879 vehicles sold. He said the PEV engines run at 90% efficiency — compare that to traditional combustion engines, which run anywhere from 40 to 50%.
"There's just a lot more that we can do," Tinskey said. "[We] have such big issues right now that we can make a huge impact in a very short time."
In his own words...
What are some of your hobbies?
"My former hobbies generally involved fast moving, self-powered sports like mountain biking, sailing/racing catamarans, and scuba diving. I now have three children under the age of 9, so the new-version of my hobbies are pulling 100 pounds of kids in a bike trailer, watching Theodore Tugboat shows, and imaging real sea life with our $14 Zuru Robo Fish. In addition, I enjoy TED talks, Hollywood blockbusters, and falling asleep reading periodicals related to technology."
Looking back on your career, what advice would you give yourself when you first started?
"When I was younger I wish I knew more about thermal mass. I was in the first week of my summer internship and a welder was using a torch to cut a piece of metal for my project. When he was done, it was no longer glowing red, so I picked it up before he could get the warning out. Needless to say, you can still see the angle iron pattern on my hand to this day. I think this experience also shaped my career towards electrical engineering. I know it sounds cliché, but if you love what you do it doesn't seem like work. So put another way, if you find yourself staring at the clock, chances are you are in the wrong position. I wish I learned this lesson much earlier (and yes, it doesn't feel like work now)."
Where do you see yourself in 5, 10 years? At the end of your career, what do you hope to have contributed?
"Even if I had a time machine, I can't think of a more exciting time period than right now for clean tech innovation. We are just at the beginning of multiple breakthroughs in electrified transportation, mobility, renewables and connectivity. I hope that in 5-10 years my legacy will be that the planet will be a much better place because of the innovations that I contributed. Also, each year I find myself spending more time with entrepreneurs and startups. I could easily see this to be a great way to create a stronger legacy."
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.