Like it or not, electric cars are the future. But to truly catch on, they have to be as good as, if not better than, the current gas-driven ones. And if somehow automakers can make the ever-elusive hydrogen fuel cells catch on, we’d be on the cusp of a permanent electric revolution. Jackie Birdsall is one of the engineers working to make this happen, and this is how she got there.

[Welcome to What It Takes, a column devoted to highlighting all of the kickass women in the car industry. Know someone with an awesome story to tell? Email me at kristen@jalopnik.com!]

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Jackie is a senior engineer at Toyota in the fuel cell hybrid vehicle group. She’s from California, but currently, she is on assignment in Japan. She’s been there for 13 months and will return to the U.S. in June. She is also without a car right now, which I’m sure is painful.

Jackie is working on creating hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and buses to support the crowds who will come to Japan for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Like Honda and BMW, Toyota has invested heavily in hydrogen fuel cells, and is now looking to further expand that portfolio. Indeed, it’s already started testing a hydrogen fuel cell tractor-trailer in Long Beach called Project Portal.

Jackie provided some insight on how hydrogen fuel cell cars are getting better and better, and what still needs to get done in order for them to truly take off. And she had a lot to say on why we just don’t see enough women engineers in the automotive space.

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(Note: this conversation has been edited for grammar, brevity and flow purposes.)


Kristen: What got you into cars to begin with?

Jackie: It wasn’t just one event. I kind of found myself with a group of people who really enjoyed working on vehicles. Then I got into auto shop at my high school and I started working at Pep Boys. It all just kind of went from there. I just always had this love affair with everything in the automotive industry.

Kristen: It sounds like you’re very hands-on with your interests, then: taking things apart and putting them back together.

Jackie: Yeah, definitely. It started with my girlfriend and me trying to replace her corner lights. We had never even picked up a tool. We didn’t really know anything beyond your normal hammer and nail and maybe a Phillips head screwdriver. We ended up taking apart the entire front end of the Civic. That was kind of when I was hooked because it was so much fun to just take it apart and put it back together.

I originally wanted to be a designer but I didn’t have the artistic knack needed to be a designer. I knew someone who worked for GM. I showed him my drawings and I said, “Do you think I can do the GM design school?” He’s like, “Well, maybe you should find something else to do. Do you like math?” I was like, “Yeah, actually, I love math and I’m pretty good at it.” He was like, “Well, have you ever thought about being an engineer?” I pretty much said, “No, what is that?”

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Then I discovered engineering and that really kind of immediately became clear to me that that was going to be my path for the rest of my life.

Kristen: And where did you go to school?

Jackie: I went to Kettering University in Michigan and I studied mechanical engineering. It was a school founded predominantly for automotive engineering. You can do three months at school and then three months at a co-op, and then three months at school and three months at a co-op. By the time you graduate, you’ve actually done different engineering jobs for almost two and a half years.

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My very first internship was with Mercedes-Benz research and development North America in Sacramento on their prototype fuel cell vehicle. I’m originally from California, so I definitely have a bit of the environmental awareness, if you will.

As soon as I was introduced to the concept of electric vehicles and fuel cell vehicles, I knew that that could combine my passion for the automotive industry along with really giving me a sense of contributing to society and trying to in general improve the quality of life.

Kristen: And what are some of the downsides to fuel cell vehicles? How are you going to make fuel cell vehicles “work” in the United States?

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Jackie: Infrastructure is the primary bottleneck. There isn’t a big incentive, especially in certain states. There isn’t government support to build stations, and with such a low volume of vehicles, the economics aren’t where station providers would want them to be.

In California, we’re lucky enough for the support of the Air Resources Board and the California Energy Commission helping us fund the beginning of the hydrogen fuel cell infrastructure. Building those stations in California allowed the automakers, including Toyota, to roll out fuel cell vehicles. Then, once you start to see the demand, then the economic case can be made to start to build the stations by private entities, which is exactly what we’re starting to see.

Unfortunately, other states don’t have that same kind of support and really never got that initial boost to the infrastructure that was required to start to roll out fuel cell vehicles. I think as we demonstrate success in California, and as we start to see the number of fuel cell vehicles continue to increase, and the case for building more infrastructures will start to look much more attractive. I think we’ll see that gradually move across the rest of the country.

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Kristen: Has it been discouraging for you to see how slowly it’s taken the infrastructure to be built?

Jackie: Not at all. It’s been so unbelievably exciting to work on this project. The first prototype I worked on was in 2003. Then it was a really clunky technology. It has become so refined in the things that we have done here at Toyota with the Mirai. Our team has been able to do and produce this amazing vehicle that people love.

Kristen: What are some of the big leaps in improvements from 2003 to now?

Jackie: Fuel cells require water to be humidified to generate electricity. A big question was, well, these vehicles can’t operate in freezing conditions. That is an issue that we have completely taken care of. We do a lot of cold water testing up in Canada. Essentially, we purge the water out of the fuel cell pack. When it shuts down, we have a certain logic that allows the car to start up. In many cases, even better than some of our gasoline rental cars up in these minus 40 C conditions.

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Also, the cost was originally an issue when we were developing the fuel cell vehicle. The prototype; each part was kind of handmade. We’ve developed what’s called a boost converter, which essentially matches the voltage of the fuel cell to the hybrid energy drive component that we use for the rest of our hybrid lineup. Being able to use off-the-shelf hybrid parts from the hybrid energy drive allows us to significantly decrease the cost. You don’t want to produce a vehicle that’s so astronomically expensive that only the elite can afford it.

Kristen: What are some current hurdles that you’re working on right now with your team?

Jackie: We’re [also] looking at scaling up the fuel cell to power fuel cell buses. For the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, we are creating fuel cell buses that will be moving people around Tokyo. That has been a pretty fun challenge because obviously, it requires more power to move a bus than it does to move the Mirai. It really is a lovely experience to ride in a fuel cell bus as compared to a diesel bus or even a CNG but, because there’s a different transmission, right? There’s a very smooth ride, but also it’s quiet, there’s no local air pollution and all the smells and it’s an entirely different experience.

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Kristen: Besides you guys and Honda and sometimes BMW, why is it that we don’t really see other automakers working on fuel cell cars?

Jackie: There’s this not-for-profit group, California Fuel Cell Partnership, where I think eight automakers all participate and we all meet together. But all these automakers that are working on fuel cell are not very vocal about it. So, we are all constantly working behind the scenes.

We try to answer exactly the question you just asked me, which is how do we make this accessible? How do we build out hydrogen infrastructure?

Kristen: How can other people—especially women—end up in automotive engineering and do what you do?

Jackie: Oh man, that is such a good question, and that is so important.

There is a gap exposing women to engineering. I started drawing vehicles and it never dawned on me to be an engineer. I never had a role model that said, “Oh, this is an option for you.” So, I think it’s really important to get it out there, to introduce women to this whole idea that they can be engineers. You can get really inspired by what you see, and if you can’t see it, if you don’t know it exists, then you have no idea that it can happen.

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Women need to know that they can be in the auto industry. If they want to be a successful businesswoman, they don’t have to be in the fashion industry. There are other options. You can do engineering and find a happy medium. There is also this a kind of perceived confidence that scares many women away from the automotive industry.

For me, it seems like you have to start really young. Even starting at essentially 15 or 16 to work on cars, I was already years behind most of the boys that I was working on vehicles with. But they were the ones that taught me how to really take apart my car and put it back together. My best friend and I picked up our first wrenches when we were 15 or 16, when the boys had been working on cars with their fathers for a lot longer.

It’s kind of scary to think that you’re behind in the game. So, you kind of have this confused notion that you are not as competent as the men are. That’s just not true. I think that women who want to enter the automotive space need to just be willing to sail for a while. You need to learn to be humble, [because] it is embarrassing, too.

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I remember my first welding class. My welds were horrible and the guys all had these beautiful welds [because they] had been doing it for a while. But I got in that class, and I welded again and again and again until it was perfect. It wasn’t ever a question of if I was less competent at the job. It was just I needed a little more effort to get up to where they were. A combination of introducing it young, of getting exposure out there for the girls so they know this is an option, but also really having the support of their peers and being willing to put themselves out there and understanding that it isn’t that they don’t have the skills to do it or they don’t have capabilities, they just need a little bit more practice and need to be willing to fail a few times.

When I started at Pep Boys, I was 16 years old. I went to all these automotive shops around Sacramento where I grew up, and I took my resume in and said, “Hi, I’m Jackie. I’m in auto shop and I love cars, and I really want to work here. I really want to get some experience. I’ll work in your shop.” I got turned down by every single one of the auto shops. There was this one where the manager just kind of gave me a glimmer of hope, and that was enough for me to go back every day, literally every day after school. I would just go sit at Pep Boys and just badger this poor manager until finally one day he said, “Okay, fine. If you’re going to be here every single day asking for this job, I’ll give you a job, but not as a mechanic yet. You need to start at the parts counter.” That’s really where I learned everything. Yes, initially, there was some skepticism about the young, dumb woman entering this shop. You have to be relentless.

Kristen: You had things stacked against you.

Engineer Jackie Birdsall (far right) stands with senior engineer Jared Farnsworth and engineer Andrea Lubawy at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, where the automaker showed the Fuel Cell Vehicle, later named Mirai.

Jackie: I was asked in another interview about if I could give advice to the younger me. I’d say I needed to be nicer to myself. I scrutinized myself so heavily, especially when I was young. It was because you know that you’re going to get ripped apart if you make one mistake [because you’re a woman]. My first speech ever at the National Hydrogen Association, I was talking about fuel quality. There has to be a certain quality for the fuel cell stack, the same way gasoline needs to be a certain quality to run your engine well. One of my initial projects was just doing a bunch of research on what contaminants affected the fuel cell.

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So there I am, maybe 24 years old or something, but speaking at this National Hydrogen Association and I just got ripped apart in this Q&A by these older gentlemen. It was a really defeating feeling to have been proud of my work and gone and presented it, and then just get completely ripped apart.

I had already gone over this presentation. I had really scrutinized it and as you said, had been prepared to get knocked down, but I wasn’t prepared for this Q&A session. Now that I’m older and now that I know even more, I was actually right. These guys’ questions were ridiculous and off topic, and they were just wrong. So, I wondered why it was that these men felt the need to question me and to try to—honestly when I look back on it—to try to knock me down a bit. In reality, they were wrong and I wish that I could’ve gone back to my younger self and really shed some light on that and said, “You know, don’t be so hard on yourself.”

I don’t think many other people understand that’s what makes us so highly critical of ourselves. You want to make sure every single thing out there is perfect because you know you’re going to be scrutinized on another level.

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Jackie closed by telling me that it’s always hard for her to talk about herself because she just did what she wanted to do.

“It doesn’t ever feel like a story,” she told me, “but apparently it is.”