Ford's secret weapon has a passion for batteries and came from NASA

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The 2020 Ford Explorer Police Interceptor hybrid. - Ford Motor Co./Detroit Free Press/TNS

The little boy who grew up at 3931 Hubert Ave. in Los Angeles never thought he’d wind up living in Detroit — and never dreamed he would want to stay.

Blame his passion for batteries.

That’s right, batteries.

It’s one thing to dash across town to CVS to pick up a tube of Crest toothpaste. It’s another story to travel all the way to Jupiter. But the technology can be the same.

And it’s designed by a guy named Bob Taenaka (pronounced Tie-eh-NAH-ka).

He’s the man, whether it’s powering the Galileo space probe at Jupiter or engineering the power source behind the Mustang Mach-E, F-150 hybrid pickup and Police Interceptor hybrid.

He’s the top battery technology guy at Ford Motor Co. He came from NASA’s world, working at Hughes Space & Communications Co. in El Segundo, California.

“I’m not a rocket scientist but I worked with rocket scientists,” Taenaka said.

At NASA, battery engineers sometimes actually get top billing over actual rocket scientists, he said.

Who knew?

Anyway, Taenaka is senior technical leader on advanced battery systems at Ford — designing the range, charge and power of battery packs.

For auto companies, this is the secret sauce.

He has been creating car batteries at Ford for nearly two decades, after earlier designing space batteries for NASA and for the U.S. Air Force for almost two decades.

“Bob is passionate about batteries, whether they’re going in an interplanetary space probe or the Ford Escape (hybrid) or (Mustang) Mach-E that’s parked in your driveway,” said Mike Levine, Ford North America product communications manager. “You need a reliable, dependable, affordable battery, whether hybrid or all-electric.”

This is the key to the future. Figuring out how to keep batteries warm in the winter and cool in the summer. This tech is used in cars and spaceships.

Speaking about Galileo’s mission to Jupiter, Taenaka said, “The batteries provided power for all science instruments. If the battery fails, the whole mission fails. This is pretty much true of any system as complex as spacecraft or automotive. Reliability is really critical.”

Helping cops

Dependability is just one reason why Oakland County Sheriff’s Major Christopher Wundrach said the agency ordered two hybrid Police Interceptors in April 2019 for $36,372 each and looks forward to receiving the vehicles soon.

“It’s more efficient. We like it because it uses less fuel,” he said. “It keeps our carbon footprint down. We want to do our part to help out. Sheriff (Michael) Bouchard likes to keep us on the cutting edge of technology.”

Taenaka said, “This is a new design, new technology and we need to prove it out. The battery in space needed to last a really long time or the whole plan would collapse. In a vehicle, we want the battery to last the whole life of the vehicle. That would be mission accomplished.”

Haircuts in Watts

He is the kid who spent his days playing Hot Wheels for hours. Once a month on a Saturday, he and his father drove to the family’s combination grocery store and barbershop in Watts for haircuts from his grandma.

“It was nice back then,” Taenaka said.

But when he attended elementary school, the smog was so bad some days that kids couldn’t go outside to play at recess.

“I still remember a slight burning sensation in my eyes, and beginning to cough and wheeze if you took too deep a breath while playing outside,” Taenaka said. “Those experiences motivated me to work on alternative energy. I had no idea it would lead me to a 37-year career as a battery engineer.”

That is when he thought about his way of helping to change the world. The rest of his extended family went into fields such as earthquake engineering and aerospace engineering. Bob Taenaka studied chemical engineering.

“Electrified vehicles and a spacecraft are actually very similar. They both have energy storage systems and propulsion and vehicle launches,” he explained. “We have launch dates for both cars and spacecraft. The common thread between spacecraft and car batteries is reliability and durability. If you don’t have those attributes, they will never be good products.”

‘No limit’

Fully electric vehicles have zero tailpipe emissions but making them and powering them still requires energy that can generate pollution. Longer-range electric vehicles require more energy and use up more natural resources to make them than shorter-range versions. Hybrid vehicles, on the other hand, have very low emissions, they don’t need to be plugged in and there’s no limit to the distance they can travel with just short stops for gasoline fill-ups.

“Hybrids and fully electric vehicles are both really important to achieving long-term air quality goals and environmental solutions,” said Taenaka, who is 61 and lives in Plymouth. He drives a 2019 Ford Fusion hybrid. “I love that car.”

‘Damn lucky’

After the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, the Galileo spacecraft was redesigned. The trip would take longer than initially planned, requiring scientists to slingshot the spacecraft around the sun and Earth to get it to Jupiter. The project led to the discovery that a moon orbiting Jupiter had an ocean with as much water as Earth.

“As the probe ripped through Jupiter’s upper atmosphere at 106,000 mph, would its heat shield withstand temperatures twice that of the surface of the sun … Could it really survive the highest impact speed of any man-made object ever — 50 times faster than a bullet fired from a high-powered rifle? Would its thermal batteries perform as planned … In the end, the batteries performed flawlessly,” said DesignNews on March 3, 1997.

Bernie Dagarin, a retired program manager for Hughes known as “Galileo Probe’s Guardian Angel,” said he worried about the project when the top battery engineer, Lynn Marcoux, suddenly left the company. Marcoux insisted that Taenaka was “even smarter” than he.

“I quickly realized that Bob was the perfect battery engineer for the Galileo program,” said Dagarin, 87, of Garden Grove, California.

“We had a very special battery that we put on the probe that went to Jupiter. It was lithium-sulfur dioxide,” Dagarin said. “Bob is brilliant while being both quiet and unassuming. Additionally, he’s got an unbelievable work ethic. A couple times when we were working together, I went into his office early in the morning and found that he had worked all night long. That was more than once. How many times, I don’t know.”

He paused. “Seeing Bob go to Ford, well, that was tough. They were damn lucky to get him. And, obviously, he’s happy there.”

All about size

“In the industry, a battery is typically referred to as a grouping of cells,” Taenaka said, “like a group of students makes up a class.”

He and his team have developed and delivered hybrid, plug-in hybrid and fully-electric vehicles including the F-150, Explorer, Police Interceptor, Escape, Transit, Lincoln Aviator and Corsair.

He has worked on design, development, testing, and validation at the battery cell and pack level, and — most important — the vehicle level, in manufacturing, field issue support and postproduction battery quality.

“The first task I would get involved in is determining what the size of the battery needs to be,” Taenaka said. “Vehicles will have a certain set of requirements — power, energy and lifetime required. The faster you want to accelerate the vehicle, the more power you need to discharge out of the battery. The other thing is energy, which translates directly to vehicle range. By putting more cells into the system, you can go further and have more power. The combination of power and energy determines the right size of the battery.”

Progress means batteries aren’t so big and heavy anymore.

“Historically, you usually never have enough space to fit all the energy desired,” Taenaka said. “That’s why the electric vehicle range has been increasing over the years, because battery cell technology has been advancing.”

Fact is, battery tech is so simple it can be explained to a kid with ease:

“A battery is just like you. Fill it with food (electricity) and tender love (treat it nicely), and it becomes full of energy to make things go. It works best at the same temperatures that you like — not too hot and not too cold. It likes to take a break from time to time to rest and rejuvenate itself, just like you do. And when it gets low on energy, that’s the time to recharge it with food (electricity) so that it becomes full of energy again,” he wrote while traveling Iceland in recent days to see the Northern Lights.

400,000 miles

Over the years, Taenaka takes time to reflect on his work and its impact.

“My most personally satisfying moment since I joined Ford in 2001 took place when I took a personal trip to New York City in 2017,” he said. “I exited the subway at Madison Square Garden and walked along the nearby city streets, and it became clear to me that about 30% of the yellow taxis were Escape Hybrids. But we had ended production of the Escape hybrid five years earlier, in 2012. It was concrete proof we had designed a durable, dependable vehicle. About 70% of all Escape hybrids ever produced from 2004 to 2012 are still on the road today, and some taxi vehicles have more than 400,000 miles, almost all with their original traction battery.”


Jeremy Acevedo, senior manager of insights at car appraisal site, said battery technology is the “final frontier.” And having NASA expertise at Ford enhances the company’s credibility in a highly competitive space.

“It’s uncharted territory for the industry,” he said. “That’s huge. And it’s about the industry getting it right.”

In fact, Ford is investing more than $11.5 billion in electrified vehicles by 2022, including the all-new fully electric Mustang Mach-E SUV in 2020 with a targeted range of 300 miles and an all-electric F-150 in a few years, Levine said. A hybrid version of the best-selling F-150 pickup coming later this year will join new Ford Escape and Explorer hybrids, he said.

Taenaka won’t predict his future.

“When I was 9, I was certain I was going to pitch or play first base for the Los Angeles Dodgers. I am left-handed and that’s an advantage in baseball,” he said. “In junior high, a career survey said I should become a national park ranger. So I figured I’d be a park ranger after playing baseball. But I got cut from the varsity team in 11th grade. Maybe I’ll work for the Detroit Tigers one day as an usher after I retire from Ford.”


©2020 Detroit Free Press

Bob Taenaka, senior technical leader on advanced battery systems at Ford Motor Co., worked on space projects prior to providing battery expertise for autos. - Ford Motor Co./Detroit Free Press/TNS