Love for all-things automotive fuels engineer’s pursuit of next-gen propulsion.
Keith Confer believes he was born to be an engineer. In fact, his father, Richard, a General Motors Proving Grounds engineer, used anything with a motor and wheels – go-karts, motorcycles, you name it – to nurture Confer’s scientific curiosity and innate abilities into something tangible. The senior Confer also instilled in his son the belief that if he could dream it, he could do it. These early life lessons were the spark that ignited Confer’s 30-plus-year career. With numerous achievements in manufacturing, mechanical and systems engineering, you might think Confer has hit his career goals. But the holder of 10 patents … the member of the Delphi Technologies’ Innovation Hall of Fame … and a key player in the company’s Intelligent Driving advances … says he’s just getting started.
You’ve followed an unusual engineering career path. Was this by design?
It didn’t start out that way. I knew I wanted to be exposed to the different dimensions of automotive engineering. That’s why I chose Michigan Tech and mechanical engineering. It offered the widest view into all the possibilities. While in school, I interned at Oldsmobile, working in manufacturing and machine component design. That’s when it hit me – to change a product for the better, you first need to understand how it is currently made. So, I decided to follow product lifecycle engineering in reverse – working from the actual to the conceptual versus the conceptual to the actual. I first worked in manufacturing and process engineering, then product design, and now advanced concepts and systems. This route, I think, has given me deeper insights into what came before in order to successfully accelerate what’s next.
Cars are a lifelong passion of yours. What’s the fascination?
Cars have been a part of my life, all my life. It started with my dad, who recognized early that I had a natural ability and the desire to take things apart and put them back together. He also taught me that if you can dream it, you can do it. If you can see it, you can make it real. I absolutely love cars; the engineering, styling, design and the complex systems working together. However, it’s the science behind cars that drives me. I see myself as a lifelong learner, a perpetual student, always curious and out to discover what else is possible.
Your passion for cars also extends to your hobbies, correct?
Yes. I’m an illustrator who creates automotive art and stylized concept drawings. I’m also a custom coachbuilder, taking vintage vehicles and re-creating them with styling cues from different eras. I have a shop at my home where we do all the work. One project, which took 10 years to complete, involved converting a 1940 Ford pickup into an open-air, Art Deco-inspired roadster. Using the original frame as the base, I completely refabricated the interior and exterior. And, right now, I’m working on restoring a 1940 Ford Coupe as a 1960s-era hot rod. These projects are a ton of work, of course, but I have had help – from both of my parents, my wife and friends – and the whole process is incredibly fun. You get to take what is, see it for what it can be, and then re-create it into something special. What could be better?
So, is the work you do on cars, work or play?
Definitely, play. You’ve got to find the joy in what you do. It’s the only way to make work, play.
Let’s talk a bit about Delphi Technologies. Why have you built your career there?
The opportunities to learn and explore have always been available to me. When I was ready for more, Delphi Technologies let me do more. Stretch assignments, such as one called Project Mt. Everest, where I was sent to Japan at three-week intervals for a year in order to develop strategies needed to break into the Japanese market, were incredible. More recently, working as principal investigator on joint industry and Department of Energy initiatives, I had the chance to work with our National Labs, as well as Silicon Valley tech companies, to find new ways, better ways, to power vehicles in order to reduce emissions and our dependence on fossil fuels. I believe no other company would have offered me such a path.
Your volunteer work brings you into contact with student engineers. What’s your message to them about careers in the auto industry?
It’s simple: As an engineer you’re looking for change; things you can reinvent. We’re at a point in the history of the automobile where we’ll undergo more change in the next 10 years than we have in the last 50. True reinvention is happening now. Why not be a part of it?
And when the students ask you which is better to work for – an OEM or a supplier?
I tell them that both are equally challenging, especially when you factor in the industry’s trajectory, but for me, the supplier side offers more diversity in terms of experiences. Work for an automaker and you will work exclusively on their cars and trucks. Work for a supplier, and you’ll work on them all. Also, with suppliers, there’s a greater chance of tech trickle down, or crossover, into other transportation arenas like motorcycles, marine and mass transit. This widens the field of view on the future rather than narrowing it down. That’s appealing to many young engineers.
You’re currently with the Intelligent Driving team. What makes this initiative exciting?
I’ve worked with propulsion technologies for a lot of years. While there have been tremendous breakthroughs, we’re still at the point where all an engine knows to do is what you tell it to do by pushing on a pedal. With Intelligent Driving, that all changes. The propulsion system will know what’s coming up next – speed changes, stops, or hilly verses flat terrain, for instance – and use that intel to automatically adjust the settings to improve range, conserve fuel and reduce emissions. You won’t have to tell the engine what to do; it will already know. Almost daily, we’re experiencing “whoa” moments with how much we could fundamentally – and forever – change how propulsion control works. It’s simply incredible.
You’ve accomplished a lot in your career. Any desire to slow down?
Not yet! I’m still having fun. My immediate focus is on the Intelligent Driving projects, and on bringing an Intelligent Driving technology suite to market, which could leverage advances in smart propulsion systems and smart cities. We’re at a pivotal point in the history of the automobile, and I want to be part of the fun.