Halfway through his interview at Honda, Steve Hansen ’90 felt certain he wasn’t going to get the job.
It wasn’t until he pulled out a photo of the senior design project he had completed at Stony Brook that the interview really turned around. Now, nearly thirty years later, Hansen is a Chief Engineer for Honda R&D Americas, Inc., and he still credits his work at Stony Brook with landing him the job.
Today, Hansen has led the development of several Honda and Acura models, most recently leading the global development of the 2019 Acura RDX.
You credit your senior design project at Stony Brook with helping you land your first job at Honda. What was it?
Professor Moez Mayourian, who was my counselor for my junior and senior years, was also the faculty advisor for the newly formed SAE Mini Baja team. He told me about the team and encouraged me to participate. My senior design project was the development and construction of the chassis components, steering, suspension and brakes for the Mini Baja vehicle entered in the 1990 spring SAE competition held in Orlando, Florida.
And how did the the Mini Baja Project help you at Honda?
There was a mini recession, especially in the automotive industry, around the time of my graduation from Stony Brook. Automotive companies were not hiring during the economic slowdown, so I was having difficulty procuring an interview in my desired field. After months of job searching without any prospects, I travelled from Long Island to Ohio to interview with Honda engineering managers for an entry-level engineering position.
After an hour of sharing my education, experiences, and skills, I wasn’t optimistic that I was going to be offered the job, as the interviewers showed little interest in me as a candidate. Then, one of the managers asked the question, “What is a Mini Baja?” Even though I had spoken extensively about my Mini Baja experience, the panel of all Japanese associates were not familiar with the SAE student design competitions. I shared with them a few photographs of the vehicle. Then the manager said, “Ah, buggy!” That was the turning point of the interview because, after that, the interviewers all leaned forward in their seats and became more engaged in the interaction. The next hour of the interview, I essentially repeated the same content I shared in the first hour, except now the Honda managers had a better comprehension of my explanation and qualifications.
Through my involvement in Mini Baja, I was able to demonstrate my engineering capabilities, including manufacturing design, budgeting and scheduling.
Of course, your journey through the automobile industry started long before you got to Stony Brook. You you worked at your uncle’s auto body shop right here on Long Island. What was it about this early work that attracted you to the industry?
My interest in cars started at a young age and it is what motivated me to persuade my mother to drive me to my uncle’s shop. At 12, although I spent a lot of time washing cars and pushing a broom, I also had hands-on opportunities working on cars. I honestly remember the first Acura model that I worked on back in 1989. I replaced the right front fender on an original Legend. It left an impression on me because the quality and construction was clearly ahead of the rest of the industry.
And then you came to Stony Brook. What role did your studies here play in your journey?
My bachelor of engineering degree from Stony Brook was essential to achieving my career goals. I was admitted into the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences as a general engineering degree candidate, a.k.a., undecided. The course curriculum gave me exposure to the various engineering disciplines and, with the guidance of my counselors, I decided that mechanical engineering was best suited to my skills and ambitions. And that degree enabled me to obtain employment at the R&D branch of a top automobile manufacturer (Honda).
What do you love most about your job?
I’d say, overall, I really appreciate the art, technology and performance of automobiles. I have to have an emotional connection with the vehicle I drive, because driving is one of my favorite hobbies. I enjoy the interaction between the human and the machine. So, it has to be more than just an appliance or a tool to transport me from point A to point B. The styling and image has to reflect my personality and style.
With that said, we have to ask, what is your dream car?
I have an affinity toward performance vehicles, especially ones that connect the driver with the machine – similar to a racecar. I own a Honda S2000 convertible sports car, which I drive only when the weather is nice enough to drive with the top down.
I also have a deep respect for classic cars that have made an impact on the company’s future or have had a long history of success, so I also have a 1965 Honda S600 Coupe in my garage. The S600 was Honda’s first mass production four-wheel vehicle and the first model sold outside of Japan. Porsche 911 and Chevrolet Corvette are two other models that I aspire to own.
However, the vehicle that I have been dreaming about the most lately is the new 2019 Acura RDX.
So what about the 2019 Acura RDX has you the most excited?
A lot. What really excites me is the number of lives that will be positively impacted. I know that driving in congested areas, like on Long Island, can be stressful. And with longer commute times, New Yorkers spend a lot of time in their vehicles. So we made sure the driving experience is enjoyable and secure for these customers. The RDX’s seat comfort, its large panoramic sunroof and innovative and powerful ELS Studio 3D audio system combine to enhance the overall mood of the occupants. For a safe and secure feeling, we added Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) and the AcuraWatch safety-sensing system on every new RDX. Already, I am encouraged by the positive reactions from automotive journalists and early customers that the new RDX will serve the needs of its owners well.
With all that goes into developing a vehicle like the 2019 Acura RDX, what does a “typical” day at work look like for you?
I like that you use quotes around the word “typical.” The only thing about my day that is typical is that it begins when I wake up and ends when I fall asleep. The time in between varies widely.
As a development leader, I spend nearly 90 percent of my time at the office directing, communicating with and supporting our teams. The remaining time is spent reporting on the progress of the project to company executives. For tasks that require only my own work, I’ll do those at home in the early morning hours. I find that I can be the most productive at this time.
How about a typical day off?
I enjoy spending time with my wife. Together, we travel and spend time with family and friends when we are not working. At work, I’m doing a lot of planning and organizing so that is the last thing I want to do on my days off. I am fortunate that she likes to make all of the arrangements for our social life. The only thing I have to do is the driving, which is something that I enjoy.
Stony Brook recently opened an institute for AI-Driven Discovery and Innovation. Do you see a future for AI in your work? Are driverless cars in our future?
Opening that new institute is a very important step for Stony Brook. I’m really excited about what this could do for Stony Brook and our students.
For our world to become more connected and autonomous, it’s going to require institutions like Honda and Stony Brook to research these areas and pursue new innovations.
Already we’re starting to see these technologies incorporated into our products. Today, we have more than a million Honda and Acura vehicles, including the new RDX, equipped with either Honda Sensing or AcuraWatch. These driver assistive technologies are helping to reduce the frequency and severity of traffic accidents through such tools as lane-departure alerts and automatic braking.
At Honda, our goal is to achieve what is called “Level 3” autonomy by 2020, which would have a high degree of dynamic automation while still requiring the vehicle’s driver to intervene if need be. By 2025, our goal is to achieve “Level 4” autonomy, which means that the car could perform all aspects of dynamic driving, even if a driver does not respond to the vehicle’s request to intervene.
The goal of these advancements, for Honda, is to create safer, more enjoyable and efficient mobility experiences for all road users—toward ultimately achieving a collision-free society. And it’s one that’s going to require partnerships and connectivity—among universities like Stony Brook, governments and companies like Honda.
What advice would you give to a student looking to follow in your footsteps?
Have a dream, actively pursue it and believe in yourself.
First, grow your knowledge. As a student, you are expanding your understanding of your chosen field through your courses and curriculum. You will need to apply this knowledge again and again in the future.
Second, gain experiences. It is important to find ways to demonstrate how you are able to apply your knowledge with real world experiences. I accomplished this on campus with my senior design project through my role on the SAE Mini Baja team and off campus with my hands-on experience in the auto body repair shop. There are other on-and off-campus opportunities, such as internships, to get similar experiences in your chosen field.
And for some final recommendations, grow your network, track what is happening in your chosen field and seek out leadership opportunities. These steps will help you accomplish your goals.
My footprints have long since faded on the Stony Brook University campus, and the world has evolved, so students will need to take new paths—their own unique paths—to achieve their own goals and live their own dreams. Isn’t creating one’s own course part of the challenge that makes success so sweet?