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Automotive Engineer Wins First Lemelson-MIT Prize

GM Powertrain engineer William J. Bolander is first winner of $500,000 award for invention and innovation

WASHINGTON, D.C., April 1995 — William J. Bolander, 34, has won the first $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for excellence in creativity, invention and innovation. Bolander is an automotive engineer (an Algorithm Technical Resource Leader) with General Motors Powertrain, headquartered in Pontiac, MI. He has helped develop inventions that improve both passenger safety and automotive performance including the traction control system used in Saturn cars and the "limp-home" technology used in the Cadillac Northstar system.

The Prize was announced by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, MA) professor and world renowned economist Lester C. Thurow, who chairs the Lemelson-MIT Committee. Bolander, who develops the logical and mathematical models for the computers that control automobile engines' fuel injection, ignition timing, and transmission operations, will be honored this evening at a special ceremony at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

The Lemelson-MIT Prize — the nation's largest single prize for invention and innovation — was established in 1994 to recognize the outstanding contributions of America's talented inventors and innovators and to promote inspirational role models for young people. The Prize is administered solely at MIT by the Lemelson-MIT Prize Committee.

"From the beginning of his career, Bill Bolander's colleagues say he was never a "cookbook" engineer, but rather a true innovator, going beyond developing a single answer to a specific problem to designing creative solutions with extraordinary applications," says Thurow. "The result has been a series of patented inventions that have helped the American automotive industry become increasingly competitive over the past five years," he adds.

Bolander responds, "I often think ideas are the easiest part. Finding the solutions are the fun part for me. but actually test that idea to prove that something's reliable and cost-effective takes a lot of teamwork," explains Bolander. "It's very fulfilling for me to actually have had a part in a product that people love to drive."

"Beyond his innovative technical and exemplary work ethic, Bill shares his knowledge and creative vision while motivating others within a team to identify, resolve and validate technical solutions and concerns," says Donald J. Reilly, Saturn's Chief Engineer — Engine Team, who worked with Bolander.

Before joining GM Powertrain, Bolander spent 10 years with Saturn and was part of the team that developed the first Saturn automobile, introduced in October 1990. Bolander's work on engine control software led to a number of important innovations for the auto industry. The patented integrated traction control system Bolander and his team designed has won numerous automotive awards. While higher priced cars control traction with an expensive hydraulic system, Bolander cleverly manipulated computerized engine and transmission controls to control wheel slip on ice and snow without using the brakes.

"As engineers, we drive cars all the time. We go from the mountains in Colorado to the extreme cold in Northern Ontario to the desert hear in Arizona specifically to find circumstances where performance is less than perfect." explains Bolander. "What I'm striving for is to provide flawless performance under all conditions, and that's really where most of these inventions and innovations started; by identifying problems and trying to improve automobiles not just to meet, but to exceed the expectations of the customers."

Bolander joined GM Powertrain in 1994, shortly after GM introduced Cadillac's Northstar system, with its "limp-home" feature. Bolander helped develop the "limp-home" technology while a college student. In the early 1980s, under GM's Northstar Engine Group Assistant Chief Engineer Max Freeman, co-op student Bolander was asked to examine certain problems arising with aluminum engines. His undergraduate thesis proposed a new approach for operating a car when coolant is lost, a catastrophic event for any engine. Bolander's innovative idea was to reduce the number of cylinders running at any one time.

Bolander explains: "We shut off the fuel to specific cylinders, but they continue to pump air and turn the engine into an air-cooled device, rather than depend on the coolant. Now the automobile can "limp-home" to a service station without incurring engine damage."

Patented in 1984, Bolander's "limp-home" idea was introduced in 1993 when GM developed the Cadillac Northstar powertrain system.

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Bolander holds nine U.S. patents for automotive related innovations including:

  • Vehicle engine ignition timing system with an adaptive knock retard
  • Coast-sync-coast downshift control methods for clutch-to-clutch transmission shifting
  • Valve position sensor diagnostic
  • Throttle Position Sensor Error Recovery Control Method
  • Vehicle ignition system having adaptive knock retard with starting temperature correction
  • Method for adjusting engine output power to compensate for loading due to a variable capacity air conditioning compressor
  • Fuel control system for engine during coolant failure

Bolander's contributions to GM's engine technology already have earned him four "Boss" Kettering Awards in the past three years, more than anyone else in GM history. Names in honor of Charles G. "Boss" Kettering, the first vice president of GM Research Laboratories, this award is the company's highest recognition for technical innovation and team work. Less than one percent of GM engineers ever receive this award in their career.

"I have been able to contribute significantly to many different things. But I've never felt the things I did and the accomplishments I've made were all my own. It has always been the result of working with a talented group of people," says Bolander.

Bolander was born in Rolla, MO, in 1960. When he was eight, his family moved to Flint, MI, where his father, Richard, an Ph.D. in physics, took a teaching position with GM Management and Engineering Institute (GMI). Bolander's lifelong fascination with automobiles was inherited from his father, who loved to work on old cars. On weekends, Bill helped his father repair engines and got a hands-on education in automobiles.

"My father and I went down to my grandfather's farm in Kansas and pulled an old 1953 Studebaker out of a wheat field and drove it home. That was my first car. I began to work on that and it steered me into the automotive industry," recalls Bolander. "I thought it would be great to make cars for a living. I looked into the possibility of becoming an engineer in the automotive industry. Since my dad was a math and physics professor at GMI, I knew it was the ideal place for someone like me," says Bolander.

Bolander enrolled at GMI, a cooperative school where students attend school one semester, the work the next. "GM was my sponsor. I worked on their advanced engineering staff and had the chance to see how things I learned might be applied to my work. GM moves you through different groups so I saw all the things GM did from manufacturing to advance product development," says Bolander.

After earning a bachelor's degree in mechanical and electrical engineering in 1983, Bolander joined GM's Advanced Engineering Staff. Subsequently, he was awarded a GM fellowship to Purdue University where he earned a master's degree in mechanical engineering in 1984.

Bolander lives with his wife Beth and their two children in a Detroit-area suburb.

In addition, the first Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award has been given to William R. Hewlett and David Packard, founders of Hewlett-Packard Company (Palo Alto, CA).

Based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Lemelson-MIT Program was established in 1994 by the late independent inventor Jerome H. Lemelson and his wife, Dorothy. The Program celebrates inventor/innovator role models through outreach activities and annual awards including the world's largest for invention, the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. The Program encourages young Americans to pursue careers in the fields of science, engineering, technology and entrepreneurship. The Lemelson-MIT Program is funded by the Lemelson Foundation, which supports other invention initiatives at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Hampshire College, the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance and the University of Nevada, Reno.

Read more about William Bolander.

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