Interview: Elizabeth Hill of Jaguar Land Rover

Jon Excell talks to JLR’s chief product engineer about being at the heart of an industry leading a technological revolution 

elizabeth hill

As the over-used quote attributed to Henry Ford about the public asking for faster horses is often used to illustrate, the automotive industry has a deserved reputation for anticipating and second-guessing drivers’ appetites.

And at a time of profound change for the sector, when car-makers are taking the lead on a range of truly game-changing disruptive technologies – Ford’s words are perhaps as relevant now as they were when he allegedly uttered them.

But while it’s certainly true that the car industry is quicker than many other sectors to introduce new innovations, it would be wrong to suggest, as some critics of its eager adoption of change complain, that its approach to new products is some kind of top-down ivory tower exercise. Indeed, an often overlooked and increasingly important part of the automotive product development process is the time spent looking at cars that are already on the road, talking to the customers, and building the lessons learned from these vehicles into subsequent generations.

One person at the sharp end of this process is Jaguar Land Rover chief product engineer Elizabeth Hill, who – after a number of years leading the development and launch of major updates on the Range Rover – is now heading up the firm’s “continual learning” on current cars.

Talking to The Engineer after winning one of Autocar magazine’s 2018 British Women awards, Hill explained that while this has always been a key element of the firm’s strategy, it’s now become more important as a number of key technologies for the industry begin to hit the roads.

The obvious example here is electrification, which JLR – along with others – has pledged will be at the heart of all new vehicles by 2020. “We’re moving more towards electrification in the future but we’ve still got many, many customers who still want IC engines as well,” said Hill. “The architectures of the future will need to make sure they can do both.” Unsurprisingly, another key issue here is that old EV bugbear, range.  “Customers want more and more range,“ she added, “we’d like to get more for less in terms of package space.”

elizabeth hill
Electric is the future, but that is only part of the story

Managing and acting on all of this feedback is a truly international effort, she explained. Lessons are learned from all of the 154 countries the firm sells its vehicles into, and the way in which these findings are built on has to be relevant to the entire customer base. “We can’t design a car in Warwickshire for Warwickshire because if we did that we wouldn’t be selling the volumes of cars we are currently,” said Hill.

In general, she said, there are more commonalities than differences across all of these different markets. Nevertheless, it’s important to acknowledge that there are some key international differences. “The weather alone gives you different challenges: Russia compared to the UAE has very different conditions and terrains.”

What’s more, different parts of the world will inevitably have different relationships with technologies. For instance, she said, it’s unlikely that autonomous vehicles – a key future area for JLR – are going to be enthusiastically embraced in chaotic busy cities like Sao Paolo. “It’s so busy there are lots of parts of Sao Paolo where if you used autonomy you’d never get anywhere – it’s only by sheer belligerence that you move through.”

Taking sensible account of these regional differences is, she said, going to be increasingly important as the market becomes ever more diverse. “Obviously we can’t design a car to suit every single individual customer, so you have to have a target for the masses, but you also need to have a number of regional differences to ensure that you hit the spot.”

While many of the lessons learned by Hill’s team feed into future vehicle plans, another element of her job is ensuring that improvements are rolled out to existing vehicles as quickly as possible. In an interesting reflection of the way in which the fast-moving world of consumer electronics is changing drivers’ expectations,” said Hills, this is largely a matter of software updates. “We want to get to the place where like on your iPhone you get regular software updates,” she said.

Rapidly shifting technology trends such as this make it, said Hill, an “amazing” time for an automotive engineer. But anyone considering a move to the sector should be prepared to collaborate and step out of their comfort zone. “Engineers can no longer work in silos, they have to collaborate much more and take more of a systems approach,” she said.

Hills pointed to the increasing levels of collaboration between JLR’s four key centres of competence (powertrain, chassis, body, and electrical) as evidence of this in action. “More and more of that is getting blurred,” she said, “so many things as we move forward have to work together. If you think about autonomy and what that means for the braking system, the engine, and the chassis module, there’s a huge amount of interaction that gets driven out of that. Therefore, collaboration across those areas is absolutely key. Any barriers there might have been are coming down.”

Hill’s own entry into an engineering career was fortuitous rather than the result of a long-held ambition. Unsure of what path to take following a maths degree at Nottingham University, she took a temping job for automotive parts supplier LucasVarity deburring electrical stators, enjoyed the work, applied for a graduate trainee role and got it. After a brief stint at Rolls-Royce she joined Jaguar Land Rover in 2002 and hasn’t looked back.

In light of her own experience, Hill would like to see more of a concerted effort to inform young people – and particularly girls – that engineering is a valid career choice for them. “I went to an all-girls school, was great at physics and maths but they never spoke to me about engineering. It was all a very happy accident,” she said. “We need to get people into engineering by design rather than accident, we have to make sure at school we’re talking to people about engineering.”

JLR, she believes, has done a great job of doing just that, and by ensuring that its STEM efforts give equal encouragement to girls, has seen an increase in female apprentices from six to 36 per cent over the past five years. “There’s no favouritism in that; they’ve got to go through the same application process. The issue before was that there were no girls applying. If you don’t attract girls, they don’t apply, and you can’t employ them. If you attract lots, you get them applying and then they go through an application process just like everyone else.”

It’s exciting to ponder what technology trends and innovations will shape the careers of this future generation of engineers, but Hill’s reluctant to indulge in too much crystal-ball gazing. “Twenty years ago, you probably thought you’d be able to predict 20 years head, but now you can’t. Whatever we say we think is going to happen in 20 years I think it will be wrong. Every decade of my life the time that oil’s going to run out has changed. In 20 years will there be no combustion? I don’t know. We don’t know what the clever people around us are going to discover to power cars and other things.”