In 1976, Intel entered the market for automotive engine controllers.
The decision had been agonizing. Robert Noyce later recalled, “It took an enormous investment. … We asked ourselves over and over whether we should be in the automotive business or not. Then we’d say that we had to be in the business regardless of cost.”
When the company decided to enter the business, it did so with total commitment. The same year Intel decided to enter the market, it drew up perhaps the shortest corporate objective in its history: “Book Ford.”
Intel’s leaders knew that it would take years to become ready for such a huge client. Dick Boucher, who ran the new automotive program, recalled, “We were in the business of developing chips which created their own market. To break into the automotive market, you had to work with the companies to build for their specific needs.”
Boucher and his team spent their early years pursuing comparatively small projects with a variety of automakers so they could learn the ins and outs of the industry. But they kept their eye on the ultimate goal of preparing for the moment when Intel would become Ford’s primary supplier.
Intel’s plan eventually bore fruit. First, the company produced the Electronic Engine Control III (EEC-III) unit, a combination of microcontroller and memory unit that began turning up in some Fords for the 1981 model year. Then, when Ford wanted to perform a dramatic overhaul of the engine control for its 1984 models, Intel secured the contract.
Introduced in 1982 and featured in some select models for the 1983 year, the EEC-IV was, according to Ford, “the world’s most advanced automotive computer.” Its microcontroller, the custom-design 8061, was such a breakthrough that close relatives of it became Intel’s first commercially available 16-bit microcontroller line and a highly successful product series in its own right, the MCS-96.
The 8061 and its variations, paired with Intel memory units, would turn up in more Fords than perhaps any other EEC in the automaker’s history. By 1988, Intel had sold 20 million EEC-IV components to Ford (10 million 8061s and 10 million 8763 memory devices). Intel celebrated at its facilities all over the world.
Success presented its own challenges. Ford needed chips for as many as 250,000 vehicles a month, and Intel could not afford to fall short because, as Boucher put it, “At Ford, the assembly line never goes down twice. … If it goes down once, there will be a new man in charge.”
Intel rose to the occasion. The EEC-IV controller and its memory components won quality awards from Ford in 1986 and 1987, respectively. In 1990, Intel received Ford’s coveted Total Quality Excellence Award.
In the years that followed the EEC-IV design win, Intel’s reputation within the auto industry continued to grow, along with did the range and sophistication of the technology the company produced for the automotive market. That trend would continue in the company’s 21st-century efforts to pioneer autonomous driving technology.
This story is among a series running to celebrate Intel’s 50th anniversary in 2018.