Thinking Forward: Former SAE President Andrew Brown Jr. Shares Insights from His Prolific Career
Posted: February 17, 2023
Dr. Andrew Brown Jr., P.E., LSME, FESD, FSAE, NAE has made an indelible mark on the world of transportation and mobility.
Throughout his long and illustrious career, Dr. Brown has launched new vehicular technologies, created common manufacturing & product development processes to work on an international level, imagined engineering & manufacturing development opportunities, and served in countless leadership roles, including as SAE International’s Chairman & President in 2010.
But that wasn’t always his story.
“Coming up in the industry as a Black engineer was very challenging, back in the day, as we say,” Dr. Brown said. “There were several disparities, such as limited scholarships and minimal co-op and summer job opportunities that made it difficult in college and as a young graduate engineer. Most Black engineers and technical professionals don’t want a preferred status or stature, but simply the opportunity to compete on a level playing field. And that’s really what folks continue to seek today.”
Dr. Brown has seen improvements and changes, though, and he credits industry for eliminating barriers and creating competitive opportunities. His career efforts, no doubt, are part of that shift.
A DECADES-LONG STANDARD OF INNOVATION
A flyover view of his time with General Motors (GM) and spin-off Delphi Automotive Systems shows how prolific Dr. Brown has been in the industry since his career began in the 1970s.
From early on, Dr. Brown traveled and worked in different parts of the world to provide quality products and services to customers, establishing technical teams and product technology centers in Mexico, China, India, Brazil, Japan, Poland and other locations. In the 1980s, he served as the site selection engineering manager on the Saturn Project, an ambitious project which introduced a new type of vehicle and manufacturing plant through a collaboration between GM and the United Auto Workers (UAW) union. Dr. Brown’s part in the project included working as the engineering director to help select a site for the plant.
“That was unique,” Dr. Brown said of the project. “The plant ended up going into Spring Hill, Tennessee. It introduced the Saturn car, which is no longer produced, unfortunately, but nevertheless set the tone for some unique and innovative engineering approaches on products and some unique relationships between the companies and the UAW, which set the tone for a lot of things that we’re doing today.”
He continued down a path of innovation, helping to develop Delphi Automotive Systems at GM, where he would go on to hold a variety of leadership positions culminating in his role as Vice President and Chief Technologist the 2010s. When GM and Delphi won the right to be the first North American automotive manufacturers to enter China, Dr. Brown was responsible for establishing the Delphi-Tsinghua Automotive Systems Institute to train and develop engineering talent for the Chinese automotive industry, demonstrating his unique skill set to work across cultures and build relationships for the benefit of the industry.
In the early 2000s, he authored “Safe, Green, and Connected,” an innovation focused Vision that continues to guide technology today through its wide scope including electrification and autonomy. That focus is showcased through his initiation of the first Auto-Cybersecurity Challenge in the industry to call attention to potential vehicle communication vulnerabilities, which prompted industry to find solutions to this and related safety issues. And as a member of the National Academy of Engineering, he’s led and participated in several studies on energy and environmental topics surrounding commercial and light duty vehicle technologies to mitigate emissions and improve performance. This work has been used to advise Congress on what’s possible from a technology perspective.
“I’ve always tended to be an innovative thinker and looking forward as opposed to looking at the traditional approaches,” Dr. Brown said. “I’m always thinking a bit out-of-the-box. What’s next? What are some challenges in the industry that we need to be addressing? Because if you can coherently identify the challenges, you can create the technology to solve them.”
A LEGACY OF COLLABORATIVE LEADERSHIP
Outside of the work environment, Dr. Brown has continuously found ways to push industry forward, with a focus on making things better for the engineers that follow him.
He was a founding member of the National Society of Black Engineers (NBSE) back in 1974. The organization provides support and leadership opportunities for Black engineering students at colleges and universities across the country, and has collaborated with other groups serving underrepresented populations in engineering to give amplify their visibility within the profession.
As SAE Chairman & President, Dr. Brown was the first leader in that role to continue to work full time while holding the position. He set an example that showed how a leader could be effective while working actively in the industry.
Dr. Brown came onto the board at a time of economic turmoil during a significant recession. When he assumed his role as president in 2010, the mobility industry was facing a unique set of challenges, still reeling from bankruptcies at GM, Chrysler, and tier one and two suppliers. A focus on a future forward—together—was critical.
“Coming out of that, we took the opportunity to establish a progressive SAE Vision for 2020,” Dr. Brown said. “One of the things I wanted to make sure that we [asked] is, ‘Okay, you’re coming out of this very difficulty period, but where are you going and how should you be changing? How do you make yourself more competitive and more valuable to the industry? So we put a lot of time into establishing this Vision…and a 10 year Road Map was developed to achieve it.”
That road map has brought SAE where it is today, and for the most part, was a strong indicator of industry trends. A key part of his tenure included working with SAE Fellows and SAE members to leverage their expertise and ensure that the work at SAE was useful to its constituencies, and that it could evolve over time, continuing to prove the utility of an SAE membership.
“I’m very proud of that fact—that we created something that was usable and a tool that helped SAE develop, pursue opportunities, and make it more relevant to the industry. And so if nothing else, that will be my legacy as Chairman & President of SAE,” he said.
GROWING AND EVOLVING WITH INDUSTRY
In 2023, some 13 years and a global pandemic away from his tenure as SAE president, Dr. Brown has had time to reflect on the impact SAE has on the world’s stage.
And while many things have changed in the past decade, one thing hasn’t: the need for agility in a fast-paced, ever-changing environment.
“The key thing is, you want to be open to a dialogue and don’t assume that you are necessarily in the strongest position. It’s a negotiation, in that sense,” Dr. Brown said. “You have to be humble and recognize that people don’t automatically seek you over others, so you want to make sure that you’re connected to those areas of concern and areas of interest in industry. Because without industry, there’s no engineers, and there’s no SAE.”
That means recognizing unique voices and contributors to mobility, making sure they are not only heard, but celebrated. To do so, we must make a path forward that eliminates barriers for members of underrepresented communities in the industry.
As a proven leader, Dr. Brown has a few ideas on how to do this, and some that he’s already helped organizations implement, and encourages SAE to follow suit. A previous SAE and NBSE joint effort to provide STEM educational summer programming in urban communities was a good start, he said, but other efforts need to follow.
Creating scholarships, providing access to publications and showcasing people of color as authors, celebrating SAE Fellows and other prestigious positions, and connecting with other organizations to enhance existing programs that in turn enhance SAE are all activities that could help these efforts.
And, as Dr. Brown points out, representation is crucial.
“How do you pave the way to leadership roles? One of the key ways is to seek and engage minority contributors more widely in industry events and activities,” Dr. Brown said. “And another point I would make here is to challenge minority contributors to take on broader responsibilities. Sometimes the issue is, ‘I don’t see an opportunity because I don’t see people like me in those roles,’ but then I ask folks, ‘Why not you?’”
It's a question he had to ask himself at the beginning of his career.
“When I started off as an engineer, many times I was the only black engineer in the room,” he said. “That’s a struggle or challenge that we face, but you shouldn’t let that deter you. If you think you can do it and you’re willing to put in the work to pursue it, do it. There are a hell of a lot more opportunities today than there were fifty years ago.”
As we continue to move forward in mobility, the industry is better for contributions from professionals like Dr. Brown—and you can bet he’s got his eye on what’s next. He said: “I have been truly blessed to have had the opportunities I have had during my career. For me, it was not so much about money, it was about doing my best while exhibiting integrity and trust.”
About Dr. Andrew Brown Jr., P.E., LSME, FESD, FSAE, NAE
Dr. Brown serves as the Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor and is an Automotive News PACE Judge, CES Technology & Innovation Judge, and National Academy of Medicine Innovation Judge etc. Dr. Andrew Brown Jr is currently CEO/CTO of his own consulting practice – Diamond Consulting. He provides leadership, guidance & solutions for technology and innovation for major corporations, organizations & NGOs. Clients have been John Deere, Cummins Engine, Mattel, Georgia Tech, etc. He also continues to work on boards and committees of the National Academies.
Dr. Brown is a former GM Executive and is the retired Vice President & Chief Technologist for Delphi Automotive Systems. He previously served as SAE International President and Chairman representing 125,000 members in over 100 countries. Further, Dr. Brown was elected to the National Academy of Engineering for the effective planning and integration of large-scale, highly diverse research and engineering activities.
Dr. Brown holds several degrees and certifications. He has taught at Wayne State University, University of Michigan, and Tsinghua University (Beijing, China), MEDCEE and National Congress of Christian Education. He has conducted religious missions in Jamaica and South Africa