Marc Ernst Interview – Truck Trend

Piloting Honda’s Future

Gary Witzenburg
Nov 28, 2015
Photographers: Courtesy of Honda
Born in South Bend, Indiana, Marc Ernst grew up in Maryville, Missouri, home of Northwest Missouri State University. “But I wanted to see the world,” he says. “So I applied to universities almost as far away as I could get: Princeton on the East Coast, Stanford on the West Coast.”
Photo 2/4   |   003 Marc Ernst Uniform 2014
He chose Stanford and mechanical engineering. And excited about the possibilities, but undecided on which area to pursue, he stayed for a Masters degree. "That was when I was exposed to automotive engineering," he relates. "I did a year-long project for General Motors, then a summer with Ford, and developed a real love for the auto industry."
Graduating in 1989 and seeking to add artistic and creative aspects into auto engineering, he took an opportunity with Honda to train in research and development in Japan for two years, then return to expand Honda's U.S. R&D capabilities. "The first year was mostly training in vehicle development, primarily suspension—deciding on chassis specs and layout, then tuning and development. The second year was mostly simulation activity, developing new ideas for vehicle-dynamics simulations to make development more efficient."
Returning in 1992, he established Honda R&D America's suspension and steering development groups in Raymond, Ohio. "I was the beginning of the group, along with one Japanese member," he says. From that modest beginning, Ernst has risen through increasing responsibilities to his current position as Large Project Leader (essentially chief engineer) for the ’16 Honda Pilot SUV.
Photo 3/4   |   002 2016 Honda Pilot At 2015 Chicago Auto Show
Truck Trend: Did you have test facilities there in 1992?
Marc Ernst: We had no facilities for confidential testing, so this Japanese member and I had to test on public roads when it was dark. In the summertime, we would write reports and things during the day, then start testing about 10 p.m. and go until 3 a.m. We were right next to the Transportation Research Center (TRC), but it wasn't very confidential because a lot of the fencing didn't exist. We still use TRC, expanding and advancing the courses there as we need, and it works pretty well. We also go out on public roads to confirm configurations.
TT: What is your product philosophy?
ME: Honda's DNA is about safety, fuel efficiency, quality, and balancing the package. We really try to understand our customers to make sure we give them what they want. It starts with understanding the market, talking with customers who own Hondas or competitive products, to learning what their wants and needs are and going to see them in their actual situations. Part of the Honda philosophy are the “three actuals:” go to the actual location and see the actual parts and how they are actually being used. You don't just do this from your desk.
TT: And for this new Pilot?
ME: We've really thought about its evolution through two previous generations. The first-generation Pilot was one of the first unibody SUVs, with great body rigidity, independent suspension, car-like handling, and a very useful package. But some didn't see it as a real SUV, since the big-sellers at the time were body-on-frame truck-based vehicles. The second generation was targeted to show rugged utility, off-road and tow capabilities, and whatever else you wanted it to do. It had a rugged, capable look in both styling and packaging.
For this third-generation, there was a customer migration toward more quality and luxury, with sleek, modern styling. They want the utility of a family vehicle, but after they've dropped off the kids, they want a stylish personal vehicle. So we wanted it modern and stylish without giving up any capability. We did a lot with the powertrain and all-wheel drive to not just keep, but enhance, its capabilities.
TT: Does it have competitive advantages?
ME: Safety is a big deal, and that starts with the body. We designed it with extensive use of ultra-high-strength steel and lightweight materials like aluminum and magnesium and optimized it for amazing safety capability in all third-party test modes and any other safety situation. We've developed amazing crash-test simulation capability here and back that up with actual testing. It's also a very lightweight body for great fuel economy.
One big thing we learned for the new IIHS small-overlap test is how important what the front wheel does is for managing the load path to absorb the energy of that crash mode. If the wheel gets trapped and transfers the entire load directly through, it establishes that load path. But if it comes completely off, it changes the load path and how to absorb the energy. So it's managing what that wheel does, then managing all that energy to minimize the impact and protect the customers.
TT: Do you get a lot of direction and oversight from Japan?
ME: This vehicle is almost completely a U.S. development. We communicate and coordinate with Japan, but all of the engineering and development is done here. The Pilot is sold in a lot of countries around the world, and as part of that three-actual philosophy, if we're selling it in Latin America, Mexico, Canada, Russia, Korea and the Middle East, we go to those locations to see how those customers use their vehicles and understand what they really want. That has led to specific developments for those markets that we learned by going there.
TT: You can't optimize vehicle development in labs and computers. You really still need to do it in vehicles.
ME: I completely agree. You have to drive the car and do the feeling by feel—You can't completely depend on simulation. In past programs, we've built development vehicles with prototype parts from prototype suppliers, then reverified with tooled, mass-production parts. But now our simulation capabilities have gotten good enough that we've eliminated most of that prototype stage. Because we have confidence in our simulations, we go straight to testing with mass-production parts but still have to physically verify and confirm, and maybe have to scrap, some mass-production tools when we learn something new.
Photo 4/4   |   004 Marc Ernst Suit Smile 2014

POPULAR TRUCKS

MOST POPULAR

Subscribe Today and Save up to 83%!

Subscribe Truck Trend Magazine

Subscribe to:

Truck Trend
Magazine

PRINT DIGITAL
Subscribe Diesel Power Magazine

Subscribe to:

Diesel Power
Magazine

PRINT DIGITAL
Subscribe Truckin Magazine

Subscribe to:

Truckin
Magazine

PRINT DIGITAL
SUBSCRIBE TO A MAGAZINE
CLOSE X
BUYER'S GUIDE
SEE THE ALL NEW
NEWS, REVIEWS & SPECS