Nissan’s Reed Is Not Your Typical R&D Boss

Nissan Americas senior VP Chris Reed talks about leveraging the company’s expanding technical resources for EV development, new materials, and more.

Nissan’s expansive Technical Center in Farmington Hills, Mich., will soon add a comprehensive Safety Advancement Lab that will include a crash-test facility. (Lindsay Brooke)

Chris Reed is not the typical R&D boss. In his diverse 25-year engineering career at Nissan Americas, Reed has done everything from body design to leading development of the Murano SUV, to serving as overseas chief vehicle engineer on Leaf, Pathfinder and Infiniti QX60. He’s headed platform and technology engineering and now, as senior VP of Research & Development, runs the automaker’s expansive tech center in Farmington Hills, Michigan.

But Reed’s “hands-on” expertise is not exclusively in autos. Mention your latest home-improvement project and his eyes will light up. He’ll then give you his mechanical engineer’s view of the materials, tools, and techniques needed to do the job. That’s because a decade after joining Nissan, Reed took a career chicane and became a self-employed home builder, before rejoining the OEM nine years later —but only after running a small auto-parts supplier. “I love working with my hands as well as developing products and managing projects,” Reed (below) explained during an interview with SAE International in spring 2021.

Nissan’s technical resources in North America continue to expand. How many employees currently work out of the Farmington Hills facility?

Roughly 1,000 people. And regarding the engineering team, we have about 200-300 people in Arizona [Nissan’s proving ground] and there’s another 100 or so in Silicon Valley. We have about 20 people in Sacramento and another 1,000 in Mexico.

Are you in hiring mode? Everybody seems to be looking for software engineers.

That’s the direction of the industry. We are working on expansion in connected services – and that’s something that’s going to be blossoming in the future. Certainly, that skillset needs to be enhanced and grown. But the reality is that mechanical, electrical, and base-electrical skills are what’s needed to build cars. At the same time, there is an immense number of software-related projects. Our teams out in Sacramento and Silicon Valley are working on autonomous drive, artificial intelligence and material informatics, so there is an infinite amount of work that can be done. But we still need to launch cars and we still need to build great quality cars, so I don’t see any loss in that. I see a growth.

Your job demands knowing what’s over the horizon regarding regulatory standards, safety standards, manufacturing processes, etc.

Complexity management is a great way to look at it! I want every engineer on my team to constantly look through the eyes of the other side. This usually means the plant, the product planner or the program director view, which is the profitability of the vehicle. The “silo approach” never works.

And even though each engineer has a problem-solving mindset, you’re solving a problem that has to work with all those different requirements from each viewpoint. That’s the right way to be successful. It’s how you manage the complexity and find the solution. I think that is the key job of an engineer. The more that you focus just on your part, the less you are making the right solution for the customer.

What is top of mind for you over the next couple years in terms of regulatory processes?

Certainty of the future is important for any company and recently that has been a bit of a struggle because of all the uncertainty over the last year. At the same time, we see emissions and greenhouse-gas regulatory requirements changing; that impacts our entire portfolio. It is very sensitive to sales volumes, and car-by-car performance. So, it’s a major activity that’s very cross-functional with our planning teams because engineering is on the side of solving problems and executing the portfolio compliance plan.

You’re adding a new crash-test facility at the tech center. How do its capabilities help your entire operation?

We will now have the in-house capability and equipment onsite available to test, re-test and solve any safety performance requirement of today and the future. This capability will enable us to be a global center of excellence for crash testing.

Is it being modeled after the NHTSA or IIHS crash-test facilities?

There is a correlation that we want to achieve. We’re using a lot of the same setup and equipment that run a lot of the NHTSA tests. It will be state of the art, considering all we know now and for future IIHS and regulatory requirements. The site will be ready for that and [further] expansion. It’s going to be a motivation for the employees to look across the parking lot and see our Safety Advancement Lab giving them the tools to do it themselves.

Are those disciplines an outgrowth of mechanical engineering or is that a specialty in terms of hiring crash-test engineers?

We have a lot of capabilities, but we are hiring because we are expanding. There is a technician side that needs to be able to set up and really understand the mechanics and the precision of the setup. And then the engineering side of it is problem solving and mechanical engineering. We are going to see a new Nissan Tech Center over the next few years based on the learnings and experience from this.

Does Nissan complete its own [competitive] teardowns or do you contract out for teardowns?

It is a combination. At the very least we always have the parts to do so and we have ways to display the teardowns, it is just a combination and it is two different solutions for a supplier. We have a lot of parts that we design ourselves in house and a lot of parts where you give a specific specifications and requirements to a supplier and then they solve the problem of all the requirements with their own design. It becomes a learning on a continuous-feedback loop.

Do you expect the facility to drive improvements upstream in terms of lightweighting and manufacturability of new materials?

I think we will be able to do more advanced engineering-type work in that avenue. We are always pushing for the high-strength steel and greater affordability. Stamping and welding processes are constantly changing, so that integration with our manufacturing team is critical. We also have a team in Silicon Valley that is doing material informatics, which is really about using artificial intelligence to search for better matching materials that you can then test to see if they’re going to work.

Do you expect the North American design and engineering team to have more hands-on, upstream involvement in the future of EVs from Nissan?

Definitely. We have a great amount of background with EVs with our Leaf and how customers use them. At the same time, EVs started as a niche product and are now going mainstream. I think the one thing that’s great about Tesla is that they have expanded the EV market and given visibility to more customers. That gets people thinking about EVs. The more that happens, the more we have a chance to hit the inflection point to mainstream EV acceptance.

Customer acceptance is so key. So, we’re very careful to go step by step showing the customer has to live and love their EV. We believe that the regulatory environment says that [electrification] is where we should go. We would like to be fully into that, but your success is driven by what people will buy at the right price and value.