The chief engineer behind the revolutionary all-electric Ford F-150 arrived in America as a third-grader knowing only letters A through H, which she learned during her plane ride from China. She spoke no English.
"I remember flying for the first time and also riding in a car for the first time, all on that trip," said Linda Zhang, 44, of Canton, Mich.
"Sitting in the back seat of that car that took me from Chicago O'Hare to West Lafayette (Indiana) — where my father taught as a (graduate) student at Purdue University … it was the coolest ride of my life. That car wasn't ours. It was borrowed to pick us up," she said. "It was not a luxury car. But I thought, 'Wow, this is like a carriage.' That was probably the first time I fell in love with the automobile and the American dream."
After a summer of "Sesame Street" and "Reading Rainbow," the 8-year-old girl born in Jinan started to move past Mandarin to English. By Christmas, she was fluent in her new language.
"My parents treated me like I could do anything," Zhang said. "You are you and you can conquer anything if that's what you want to do."
Popular TV shows played a key role in her career decision.
"In 'Batman,' the car did really cool things. In 'Knight Rider,' I really loved KITT," the artificially intelligent car used to fight crime, Zhang said. "And 'MacGyver' was all about problem-solving, finding creative solutions" with engineering skills and applied physics.
She isn't working with a paper clip and duct tape, which MacGyver could use to fix just about any crisis. Zhang is leading a team of hundreds of engineers changing the way America's bestselling pickup moves about the world.
A "battery-electric" vehicle means one with no internal combustion engine and no emissions.
The all-electric F-150 made its world debut Wednesday night.
In the week before the global event, it wasn't unusual to see Zhang and her team at the Michigan Proving Grounds in Romeo from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m., including Mother's Day. They're double- and triple-checking every detail to make sure things are perfect.
"In recent months, I've been doing quite a bit of testing," she said. "It could be anywhere from the high-speed test track going 105 mph or off-road, slinging mud around. We have really aggressive courses, like quarter-mile of metal-edged holes or cobblestones roads, corrosion baths, rivers and off-road courses. We put the truck through its paces so our customers can have peace of mind that our trucks are durable."
Michigan Proving Grounds is almost 4,000 acres of land with different "land mines" to test durability and capability.
While the pressure to get it right is intense — the F-Series is the primary revenue generator at Ford — Zhang is unruffled. "We have a great team and have done a lot of testing already. This is just verifications and fine-tuning."
What's unique about this project is that Ford can't introduce "wow" features for "wow" sake. The F-Series is known for playing an essential role in the lives of construction workers, general contractors, carpenters, farmers, marina operators and others who buy to haul and tow as part of earning a living.
"Customers will not buy the truck because it's electric. They'll buy the electric truck because it makes them more productive. Productivity may sound like a boring word but it means making one less trip or having one less thing to schlep around, like a generator," said Mike Levine, Ford North America product communications manager.
"Linda is the latest in a long line of chief engineers who have done extraordinary things to the truck. She did not parachute in. She's been shepherding this project since it came out of the research lab. She's been everywhere, every day overseeing this F-150."
An estimated three years have passed since its inception.
The record of big changes is notable in F-150 history.
Skeptics predicted V-8 customers would never replace their eight-cylinder engine with a smaller turbocharged V-6 until they found out EcoBoost was more powerful and could tow and haul more with better fuel efficiency. When Ford switched bodies from steel to aluminum, skeptics compared the material to a pop can. They discovered the lighter weight allowed for better hauling, towing and fuel efficiency.
F-Series sales continued to climb.
Meanwhile, Ford is setting its sights not on creating new all-electric products but seizing on the loyalty built into already popular vehicles and electrifying them, like the 2021 Mustang Mach-E.
Zhang has been with the automaker since age 19, following in the footsteps of her engineer father.
She started in the Ford College Graduate program and has worked in manufacturing, finance, strategy and engineering, most recently on the Escape, Kuga, Explorer and F-150. She has earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, a master's degree in computer engineering and an MBA, all from the University of Michigan.
"Linda has a unique combination of engineering and business acumen. She has the foresight to look into the future and rallies her team toward that greater cause,” said Lisa Drake, chief operating officer of Ford North America.
When Zhang is not launching a transformational automotive product, she said she's watching her daughter Emily's soccer games or her son Grant’s hockey games. Her husband, Jeff Miller, 47 and a certified public accountant, is an assistant coach for their son's team. The close-knit family, including her parents and in-laws, all live in Canton now.
To relax, Zhang golfs with her husband and teenage children or curls up in front of the TV to see the Avengers film series.
From her family's collection of games stacked in a closet, they most often play: Catan, a German board game where players take on the roles of island settlers who trade and acquire resources; Puerto Rico, a German board game where players take on roles of colonial governors; and bai-fen, a Chinese card game similar to euchre.
Creative thinking and a thirst for knowledge are core traits in the family.
"As a child of two engineers, I remember asking how clouds in the sky move and how wheels on a car turn," Zhang said.
The generosity of strangers toward an immigrant family has marked childhood memories.
"We came here and I had some really nice classmates helping me. We had no idea what each other was saying. But they made sure I got my milk. And we had a lot of signing going on," Zhang said. "People were genuinely kind. It opened my eyes up to what the future could be, and it helped shape me in terms of my attitude toward people. I want to be helpful."
Her father, John Zhang, later moved from West Lafayette to Ann Arbor to work on glass process manufacturing, powertrain and transmission controls at Ford. His career brought him to the historic Rouge complex. Her mother, Mei Zhang, did early data analysis for grocery stores in what has since evolved into shopper reward tracking programs. Her brother is an electrical engineer now.
They spoke Mandarin in the home, and Zhang remains bilingual with her parents. Her father's eyes sparkle, she said, because he's so proud of her work as a legacy at Ford.
Zhang might be found in a Costco or Home Depot parking lot observing people loading their pickups.
"I like to pay extra attention to those little everyday things," she said. "I feel like I can always learn."
On Friday, Zhang posted a teaser on her LinkedIn page and wrote of the wait for the new F-150 being nearly over.
"I couldn’t be more proud of the team. It has taken years of engineering passion and testing to ensure we deliver an awesome electric truck. One of the best parts of my role is getting involved in the testing, proving out new technologies and capabilities, day in, day out. ...
"The F-150 Lightning will carry with it the Ford legacy of testing dating back more than a century. ... We run vehicles around the clock at facilities across the country from minus-40 to 120-plus (degrees). We test every battery cell, every battery pack, every application. We drive millions of miles ... through salt baths, over harsh surfaces and in grueling conditions."
Zhang is eager to hear what people think when the trucks hit the road in 2022.
Ford CEO Jim Farley said, “Linda has that great quality of pushing the team to get the best possible result while maintaining positive team energy. She is a natural leader and there is no one better to deliver this launch."
In July 2019, Zhang went to a train yard in an undisclosed location to show the capability of the all-electric prototype by towing 10 double-decker rail cars and 42 F-150s that weighed more than 1 million pounds, according to a Ford news release.
Capability cannot be compromised for sex appeal when it comes to the F-Series.
The franchise is a company within a company, generating an estimated $50 billion each year.
Before Farley was CEO, he spoke as president of global markets during a presentation at the Deutsche Bank Global Automotive Conference in the MGM Grand in Detroit.
Building an all-electric F-150, he said in January 2019, would “futureproof” the F-Series franchise, which he called a “global juggernaut.”