Every industry has its heroes. The auto business can point to innovators and leaders like Henry Ford or Richard Petty as examples of individuals who assumed the mantle and pushed the envelope. But even while great men like Petty and Ford were creating headlines and making big changes, there were others — and individuals working under them — who were doing the same thing, sans the attention.
Today, we’re going to look at some of the unsung heroes of the automotive industry. These are people who are doing their very best to take automotive technology and make it safer, more efficient, or more stylish, all in an effort to create a better end product for consumers. Everyone who gets behind the wheel or even takes a seat on a bus can be thankful that individuals like this are around. It’s because of their efforts that the auto industry continues to be so innovative.
Without further ado, here are five unsung heroes of the auto industry and what they have and continue to accomplish.
1. Dr. Stewart C. Wang
Wang is a scientist and trauma surgeon at the University of Michigan. He’s also the director of the school’s Center for Automotive Medicine, which researches better ways to use technical data to create safer driving environments. Wang leads conferences and workshops with engineers, first responders, and others to share his findings, which are then taken into account by auto companies and health-care professionals in order to design safer cars and more efficient response strategies.
Wang and his team at the University of Michigan play an integral role in keeping our streets safe, as well as help keep the fires of innovation in the auto industry alive. He’s also a member of the National Expert Panel at the Centers for Disease Control, working with policymakers and legislators to help rid America of some of the country’s automotive dangers.
2. Sebastian Thrun
Though Sebastian Thrun doesn’t technically work in the auto industry, he is still one of the few people who are truly pushing the envelope in auto technology. Thrun is a man of many talents, having spent time as a programmer, Stanford professor, and founder of online education platform Udacity. But what he has done for the auto industry in particular was during the time he spent working for Google, helping to develop the company’s self-driving car technology.
The importance of self-driving technology can’t be understated — almost every car company in the world has been showcasing it for upcoming model years. But it was behind the efforts of Google and Thrun that the technology was able to be developed, tested, and ultimately ready for the market.
3. Jean Todt
For fans of auto racing, the kickoff of Formula E has heralded a bold new time for the sport. The new global racing series, which hopes to one day rival Formula 1, has been backed by Jean Todt, the president of the Federation Internationale del’Automobile (the racing world’s governing body). By welcoming electric vehicle technology into the auto world’s foremost competitive arena, it proves that even the top dogs in the industry are taking it seriously, and that it’s not simply for commuters looking to save money on gas.
Todt’s willingness to get behind electric auto tech is bringing the world of racing up to speed with modern EV innovation. We’re already seeing hybrid cars that can speed past their gas-powered cousins, and by bringing some of the world’s top automotive minds to meet with EV tech, great things can happen.
“We see this as a great opportunity to create a new and exciting spectacle mixing racing, clean energy, and sustainability, looking to the future,” Formula E Chairman Alejandro Agag told CNN. “We expect this championship to become the framework for research and development around the electric car, a key element for the future of our cities.”
4. Takeshi Uchiyamada
He’s the man you can thank for the arrival of vehicles like the Toyota Prius on the U.S. auto market. Takeshi Uchiyamada took over Toyota’s Vehicle Development Center 2 in the mid-1990s, and under his tutelage, the Prius was developed. While it may not seem like that big of a deal now, the success of the Prius, and Toyota’s support of the project, permanently altered the trajectory of the auto market for years to come.
The team that put together the original Prius had a giant task ahead of it, and the group managed to pull it off with flying colors. Had the Prius not caught on with consumers, hybrid and electric technology could have been set back a long way. But by combining the features that make the Prius great — a hybrid powertrain, incredible efficiency, etc. — with a design and practicality that drivers need, the Prius design team produced a winner. Under Uchiyamada’s leadership, the Prius was a success, and without him, it’s unclear where the auto market would be today.
5. Preston Tucker
Preston Tucker’s story is not that of your average man. Tucker was the inventor of the Tucker “Torpedo” sedan, of which only 51 were ever built. He began his career as a mail messenger at GM and eventually ended up running a Packard dealership in Indiana. He and Henry Miller, a race car designer, started to build cars together before the outbreak of World War II. It was only after the war that Tucker was able to build his now-famous sedan.
Using an old Dodge production plant near Chicago, Tucker built a handful of cars, all while hemorrhaging money and taking cash wherever he could get it. Unfortunately, that meant finding investors, who bought dealership licenses from him.
The U.S. government didn’t think Tucker actually meant to turn the company around, and came after him with fraud charges. Even though he was acquitted, Tucker’s business was ruined. It didn’t work out in the end, but Tucker surely left a mark on the auto industry; Jeff Bridges even starred in a movie about his life.