Passion. Obsession. A drive to make the next generation of automobiles better than before. Those are all appropriate ways to sum up Jackie Birdsall ‘07 and career as an engineer.
“There’s a passion that is associated with driving and freedom of personal mobility. There’s a very strong connection between people and their cars,” Birdsall said. “When I first started telling my family this is what I wanted to do, I didn’t even know what engineering was.”
She’s come a long way since then.
Birdsall is an engineer at Toyota Technical Center on the fuel cell vehicle team and in October helped launch the Toyota Mirai, the company’s first mass-produced fuel cell vehicle.
“It’s exciting but it’s moreso surreal. It was a dream of mine,” Birdsall said. “I went to Kettering in part because of the co-op program. My first co-op was Mercedes, where I worked on a fuel cell vehicle prototype. It became immediately clear to me that was going to be my career.”
Her enthusiasm for the auto industry and engineering started in high school when she helped her friend put in clear corner lights in her Honda Civic.
“I had never touched a wrench before and I just fell in love with taking something apart and putting it together,” Birdsall said. “It was a full blown love affair with everything automotive.
She joined autoshop class in high school and started working at Pep Boys, where she finally learned the names of the tools and how to use them. Her interests continued to grow and develop from there. Her passion and obsession for fuel cell vehicles took place when she was at Kettering in a co-op at Mercedes. Her classes and professors sparked more enthusiasm for the craft.
“I knew very early on I wanted to be an automotive engineer. Kettering was always seen as the leader in that industry. If I wanted to launch myself into this industry, the best place to do that was in the home of the automotive industry in the U.S.,” Birdsall said. “Nobody in my family is in the automotive world and here I am obsessed with it.”
She moved from California to Flint to pursue her studies. Now, here she is unveiling the first commercial fuel cell vehicle at Toyota in the markets in California, Japan and Europe.
The technology for the Mirai has been developing internally at Toyota for over 20 years, Birdsall said. It’s been something she has been working on and researching for over 12 years.
“I’m very confident in the vehicle itself. There’s a brilliant team working on it,” she said. “It’s reliable, dependable and safe. … It’s an electric vehicle uncompromised.”
Jackie Birdsall '07 at the Mirai launch event with Brian Cooley, Chris Hardwick and Edward Eyth.
Instead of being charged, the vehicle is filled with hydrogen, using local - sometimes renewable - fuel. The car can travel 312 miles on a fill, generating electricity on board.
Birdsall grew up in California and admitted that her family was borderline hippy. They were always looking for way to make their house more energy efficient and to be kinder to the environment.
The mentality carried over into her career.
“I always just felt like there was a smarter way to move people toward personal mobility,” Birdsall said. “This is an opportunity to bring our energy independence back.”
Between the small classrooms, a lot of face-to-face time with professors and the co-op experience, Birdsall said she was able to walk out of Kettering with a lot of confidence.
Throughout her years as an engineering student and in the automotive industry, her advice for students and young engineers is clear.
“Don’t settle. Never settle,” Birdsall said. “Find what you’re passionate in and work at it every day until you make that reality. Everyone is here at Toyota because we are passionate about what we do.”