I recently joined a group of online and traditional media for the “Forward With Ford” event at Ford’s Dearborn facility for a multi-day event covering trends and technologies that Ford is addressing. Before attending, I was offered the choice of exploring three of the following sessions; I chose the ones with stars next to them.
As gasoline prices continue to rise, fuel efficiency has become an even more important purchase factor for consumers looking at buying a new vehicle. In the first four months of 2011, small cars sales jumped from 19% to 25% in the United States. Gas prices aren’t just changing the kind of vehicles Americans are driving, they are also changing ethical, political and environmental beliefs as the country looks for ways to reduce its dependence on foreign oil. Electricity has jumped to the forefront of new vehicle technologies that allow for the use of less gasoline and more environmentally friendly, but what does driving electric mean and how will it shape consumer driving habits around the world?
The Aging Population
Demographic shift is eminent as the worldwide population of older people (50+) becomes a greater percentage of the total population. The global population is not only aging (.pdf download), it is forecast to age faster in the coming decades than in the past. The 5-+ population segment is the fastest growing worldwide, with predicted life expectancies at a historic high. Every seven seconds another American turns 50 and by 2030, a record one-fifth of the total population will be over 65. This session will look at the increasing demand for health services and the relationships between adult communities and transportation and consumer goods.
★Youth influence & Global Convergence of Design
Globalization is influencing the taste and purchases of consumer around the world — and manufacturers are responding with global products that share not only internal parts and structure, but external features and design. At the same time consumers still want to stand out from the crowd. The desire of consumers to express themselves is evident in the way people personalize their “stuff”. This session will examine the impact of changes in the global automotive market. Population experts predict twice as many people living in urban areas and mega cities, and as emerging markets account for more sales than mature markets, how will these issues impact North America and how will they be addressed? Will passion for personal mobility survive, and if so, in what form?
With smartphones expected to replace desktop and laptop PCs as the primary Web access point by 2015, the convergence of the vehicle, the mobile device and the Internet is here. Smartphone-toting drivers expect their wireless Web connections to continue seamlessly no matter where they are, including in the car — where, according to a national study from market research firm Arbitron, Americans spend some three hours a day. The winner in this space not only must help the connected consumer maintain productivity while in the car (.pdf download), but provide access to a wireless world in a smarter, safer way appropriate when traveling down the road at 70mph.
★ Safety for All Ages
Personal safety and security remain at the forefront of consumer concerns, and to that end consumers are seeking reassurance through the products and the service they use. From doctors to Ford safety experts, including Ford “parents” who drove development of some of the company’s leading safety innovations, here we’ll explore how drivers and passengers alike can be safer at any age, through not only technology, but through parenting and communication.
From the Labs of Ford
In the last decade researchers, scientists and marketers have combined forces to better understand the “buying buttons” of the brain — what makes customers have an affinity for a product, place or service without always really knowing why. This joint exploration to define and learn how to better push these brain buttons is even fueling a trend known as neuromarketing. So what makes the subconscious tick? A significant driver is our five senses — taste, touch, sight and smell. The worlds largest and most sophisticated companies are developing product, packages and store environments that are designed to appeal directly and powerfully to the senses in hopes of connecting with and winning over the subconscious of the consumer mind. Here we go behind the scenes of Ford’s Research and Innovation Center to experience the unique laboratories that are studying the science of sense and the automobile.
★ Youth Influence & Global Convergence of Design
My first session started with a design roundtable composed of heavy hitters. In the session were J Mays, Group Vice President, Design Chief Creative Officer, Ford Motor Company (formerly of Audi); Barbara Bylenga, Youth Trend Expert, Outlaw Consulting; Travis Lee, designer, IDEO; and Anthony Prozzi, Interior Designer, Ford Motor Company (formerly with Donna Karan Menswear and W Magazine).
Each took some time to discuss what inspires them and to address the question of what design elements matter most these days.
Of particular note was the observation that Millennials (i.e., those who were born in the mid-70s – early 2000s, aka Gen Y) make decisions based on individual desires, while also influencing each other in regards to what purchases to make and what brands to prefer. Times have changed; the automobile used to be a gateway to adulthood, and while it still is that to some degree, it now has an even more important symbolic role — it reflects a person’s values and priorities. Aesthetics still matter, but the decision of which car to purchase is also a reflection of the values the buyer actively holds and, as such, provides insight into other lifestyle choices that person makes.
The impact of new technology cannot be overstated. Today’s cars have more tech packed into them than ever and, as a result, they are now a platform for trying new things, and to an increasing degree, they are modded to fit into each person’s unique lifestyle. One example: Millennials can’t imagine a time when phones didn’t fit in their pockets, and for them, phone integration with their car is more important than ever. And just as phones and other devices have become more mobile, when opportunities arise Millennials want to be able to pick up and go. Millennials are location independent, and the rides they choose play a key role in that.
The devices Millennials use have become smaller and smaller, and this has had an impact on the automotive industry as well. The embrace of “smaller is better” has given new life to smaller cars, and it has allowed them to enter into the luxury arena in ways previously not possible. Moreover, while in the past smaller cars didn’t project upscale values; they do now, because “luxury” and “upscale” are no longer about how large a car is, but about how fuel-efficient it is, what features it offers, and what technology it packs.
Millennials want the tech; they want the nice ride, but they also want to make the right choices. Increasingly, that leads them to make less ostentatious choices when car shopping. That, in turn, results in highly advanced smaller to medium-sized cars.
After the roundtable, we were offered several breakout groups to attend. I chose to learn more about the technology in Auto Design, but in hindsight I probably should have chosen another session, as much of the behind the scenes designing aspects shown were covered by me in December, 2007.
Technology in Auto Design
The role of technology in designing today’s cars is tremendous. We spent time watching how Autodesk is used to render automobile designs on a huge 12x HD screen. With it we could see the design process right down to the actual visualization of the car’s interior. Then, with the touch of a few buttons, we watched as the designers tried out different color woodgrains, plastics, and leather finishes. As always, it was rather amazing to see the transformations take place, but I was amused when I realized that some of the same cars I had seen in December 2007 were being used in this presentation.
One important point was clear from a design perspective: color choice with regard to cars is a highly emotional process. That makes the selection of the right colors exceptionally important. Autodesk was able to show digital renderings of various colors in full sun, on overcast days and in the showroom.
This way the designers are able to see and ultimately decide which colors will work best on which vehicles. And all this occurs before full size 3D models are made. Those 3D models are then used to get feedback from global consumer focus groups about which colors will actually be offered and with which models.
The process is exacting. The designers create the entire car digitally, create models, get feedback and rework the digital version. Then they repeat the process. In all it takes a year to 18 months before anything is actually made.
“Everything that you are looking at here, is not real; it is digital.” I was surprised to learn that pictures in brochures or in print ads are not of an actual car; they are, in fact, digital renderings that may have been created a year before the vehicle was announced, much less produced. The digital tools used in-car design have become remarkably flexible and easy to use, enabling designers to be more creative and render new designs faster than ever.
So how long IS the entire process of drawing a car to seeing it in a dealer’s showroom? From start to finish it typically takes about 3 years to develop and finish a vehicle’s design.
Side Note: You know those awesome and amazing concept cars that show up at auto shows? They have one and only one purpose for existing — to be the star of the show. The cars won’t go into production. As a result they don’t need the same degree of care and precision. That means concept cars can be created in 9 months to a year. They have been done in 6 months.
★ Safety for All Ages
The safety session kicked off when Dr. Wang (a Detroit trauma surgeon) spoke about how extremes in age make people more fragile in crashes. Children and the elderly therefore, are more susceptible. It is for that reason that one innovation will be one of the most important when fully realized– in the future, vehicles will know who is in the seat, and adjust safety features accordingly – even to the point of monitoring health and wellness (.pdf download)! That is in the future but is not far off. In the meantime, Ford technologists are constantly striving to create new ways to keep their passengers safe (.pdf download).
A new safety feature Ford revealed to us was the world’s first rear inflatable seat belt. This belt helps spread crash forces across the body 5x more than a normal seat belt does. The goal here is to help prevent the secondary injuries caused by the actual lifesaving measures themselves. This technology is in the 2011 Ford Explorer, the 2012 Ford Flex and two other models. It will be found globally across Ford’s line some time in the future.
Then there are the technologies that help make “better” drivers Among them are curb control, blind spot monitoring, and collision warning with brake support for rear end crashes. The latter feature gives you a second or two more to react when a collision is headed your way, giving a lighted heads-up warning display as well as a tone when you are about to make a poor driving move. The goal is to allow you to avoid rear end collisions if at all possible. In fact, the US government believes that this kind of emerging technology will both prevent wrecks and save gas — not a bad combination.
One of the new safety innovations is MyKey. MyKey allow parents to help set boundaries on some of the things their kids can and cannot do when their keys are used. For example, MyKey can allow parents to set limits on speed, radio volume and more. One great example is a setting that will mute the audio if front seat occupants don’t buckle up. Another setting blocks “explicit” satellite radio stations.
Teens and Driving
There is a good reason teen auto insurance rates are so high, and Ford is hoping to change that by making more teens better drivers. One way they are attempting to do this is through www.drivingskillsforlife.com, which is a teen driving academy that also offers tools for parents and educators. Through Driving Skills for Life, Ford sponsors free hands-on driving clinics for teens with four modules – speed management, space management, vehicle handling, hazard recognition, including driver distractions.
The need for such things is huge, especially when you consider that the leading cause of death for teens is auto accidents.
The CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) says that 48% of deaths in youngsters 12 to 19 are caused by unintentional injuries. Of these injuries, 73% are caused by motor vehicle accidents.
The Importance of Having “THE TALK” with your teens
No, I don’t mean the sex talk (although that is important). Rather I mean “the car talk”. One speaker stressed the importance of having as open a dialogue with teens about driving, just as you would regarding sex or drugs. Among the suggestions — sharing expectations, giving them control through set boundaries and random driving tests. Of course it is important to teach teens to know and trust themselves but the boundaries and expectations need to be in place. And when should “The Talk” begin? The very first day the child first watches you drive.
Perhaps one of the most inspiring presenters was the actor turned environmental activist Ed Begley, Jr. Ed pointed out that there are 3 mistaken assumptions people make with the environment:
There’s no problem.
The problem is so great there is nothing we can do to fix it.
The problem is so great it would cost too much to fix it.
Ed started doing as much as he could for the environment back in the 70s, when he was a struggling actor and didn’t have enough money to do massive environmentally conscious lifestyle changes or improvements. He started by composting and recycling well before he had the money to do the big things like adding solar panels to his home. He mentioned Taking Shirley Williams (from Laverne & Shirley) on date around that time; his “car” was a 1970 Taylor Dunn electric golf cart. He said she wasn’t impressed with his car, but they still had fun. Okay, he digressed, but the main point was that his $900 electric “car” was much less expensive to operate at the time than it would have been to buy 1970s gasoline … so he was actually saving money. It took him 20 years to be able to afford solar panels for his home, but by starting small, he was able to work his way to it. Fruit trees, collecting water, a fence made out of recycled milk jugs — everything Ed Begley, Jr. has done has been sustainable and lasting – even if more expensive initially.
I have to tell you that Ed inspired me to try to do more than the simple recycling that Kev and I already do. In fact, I caught myself pricing solar panels and electric windmills today… but we’ll likely have to wait a while before we can go that green!
We had an opportunity to check out the new all-electric Focus, and if I lived in a city or town (and not in the middle of a West Texas ranch), I would be very tempted by its good looks and interior gadgets.
All of the electric vehicle (.pdf download) talk is exciting, and I believe it to be a positive move to perhaps balance some of the emissions damage from vehicles which can’t be run electrically (or at least not now in a practical way, anyway), but like any new tech there are caveats. Of particular concern is the money it will cost communities to build the infrastructure needed to sustain electric vehicles in existing communities as well as new neighborhoods.
So what happens as EVs become more common? Let’s say that you have a neighborhood that suddenly starts having at least one EV per block? From what I understand, adding one electric vehicle is the equivalent of adding two additional homes to a transformer that might ordinarily only be meant to service five. Here is a possible scenario from a post on Smart Planet:
Dasso described the current power grid of a hypothetical Berkeley neighborhood that has five homes plugged into one transformer.
When the first EV shows up in that neighborhood, it will be the equivalent of having seven homes connected to that one transformer. The utility might have to do an upgrade to the neighborhood to deal with the clustering effect.
It’s human behavior to want an EV if your neighbors have one, Dasso said, especially if you were thinking of getting an EV before seeing the battery-powered car roll into the hood. So if two neighbors get an EV, then that’s like having nine homes getting feed from one transformer.
The effect is expected to be very localized. Essentially, you’re adding an extra subdivision to the grid when a lot of people in one neighborhood use EVs.
To explain this issue further, here is a quote from Electronic Component News:
Power requirements for charging an electric vehicle can reach 6.6 kW (typical), as consumers opt for the quickest charging mode — AC Level 2 — in order to complete a charge cycle in three hours or less. The AC Level 2 charging mode specifies a nominal 220 V and up to 80 A supply, resulting in a 3.3 kW or 6.6 kW load in three hours. From the utility’s perspective, this is a substantial challenge, since a typical west-coast home consumes approximately 2-3 kW over a 24-hour period. As shown in Figure 1, for each vehicle that is charged nightly at the Level 2 rates, the utility sees an additional load equivalent to one to three houses.
From a macro level of the grid, adding 1-3 houses isn’t a problem and is, in fact, analogous to constructing new houses or a strip mall. But electric vehicles will be added to existing neighborhoods where the “last mile” infrastructure, such as transformers and power lines, are already sized and installed based upon housing sizes. An example is the “typical” North American transformer that supplies six to eight houses on the same residential block. Adding a Level 2 charger would generally be fine, although it will cut into the planned overhead and safety margin. Should a second resident add a Level 2 charger, the transformer would now be faced with not only a 30 to 40 percent load increase, but the additional 6.6 kW to 13.2 kW being condensed into a three-hour span. Clearly, this would be a major concern for utilities, since neighborhood-based equipment could fail, causing scattered outages with associated safety risks for residents.
But enough doom and gloom! Larger cities are scrambling to get infrastructures in place for electric vehicles, and who knows … maybe one day it will be common to see a full solar array and an auxiliary windmill or five generating power for neighborhood homes and cars! In the meantime, there are Ford Hybrids which won’t contribute to electric overload issues. Of immediate interest to me was that Ford is implementing the Reduce, Reuse and Recycle (.pdf download) mantra in all of their vehicles. We were told that “About 85 percent of the materials used on Ford vehicles by weight are recyclable, and approximately 95 percent of all vehicles retired from use each year are processed for recycling.” Not too shabby!
Our second day with Ford was spent at the test track where we had various stations to visit that included test drives or test rides. Among our opportunities were:
• An Eco-drive, where we could drive either a 2011 Fusion Hybrid or a 2011 Ford Fiesta to compete for the best MPG using these five tips:
1. Slow down and watch speed — just going 10mph slower can improve fuel economy 10 – 15%.
2. Accelerate and brake smoothly — fast starts, weaving in and out of traffic and hard braking waste fuel and wear out some of the car components.
3. No idling — prolonged idling increases emissions and wastes fuel.
4. Check your tires — keeping your tires properly inflated can reduce the average amount of fuel use by 3 – 4%.
5. Minimize use of heater and air conditioning — decreasing usage of the air conditioner when temperatures are above 80 degrees can help save you 10 – 15% of fuel
• A 4×4 ride in a 2011 Explorer, where we were able to see how the vehicle reacted in various 4WD situations.
• The Connected Car Experience, where we got to use Nuance voice recognition to enter any of 10,000 voice command, as the primary means of staying connected and maintaining productivity in a safe manner while driving.
• A ride on the wet track in either a 2011 Mustang or Taurus with a professional driver intent on making us hurl while he demonstrated the safety features built into the new cars to prevent hydroplaning, fishtailing, rolling, and other bad weather hazards.
• The Focus Target Challenge where we navigated a challenging course accumulating points by smoothly cornering and aiming properly.
… And my two favorites:
• Intelligent Vehicles Technology, where we rode in an Intelligent Explorer (.pdf file) equipped with a WiFi based radio system which allowed the car to communicate with others on the road.
We rode through several scenarios that might ordinarily result in a crash, except the car alerted us to the potential problem seconds ahead of impact, allowing enough time for the driver to maintain control and dodge the eminent impact.
• The Ford F-150 Power Challenge, where I drag-raced an F-150 5.0L pickup against from HardwareGeeks.com.
photo by Helena
And perhaps one of the coolest things I experienced was witnessing a live crash-test, complete with dummies. We weren’t allowed to take photos of it, but it happened so quickly that my main impressions were “dang, that was loud,” and “oh, that poor car!” No dummies were harmed, as they were properly wearing their seat-belts and the airbags deployed. I was able to get a snap of the crash-test graveyard (which isn’t nearly as exciting), because evidently auto-makers have to keep all the cars that they test, in case there is ever a question …
I left the event knowing that Ford is using their position as an automotive leader to introduce positive changes to the marketplace. It is clear to me that the leaders at Ford are listening to their prospective buyers; they are designing and producing smarter vehicles that not only help preserve the environment, but that can also save lives. The test drive that I had in the Intelligent Explorer was eye-opening! I am looking forward to the day when our cars can communicate with each other and the road via WiFi; Ford says it is 3 – 5 years in the future! Until then, we just have to rely on seat-belts, clear thinking, and good reflexes. =)