Arriving in Detroit on the airplane equivalent of a half cheese-wagon (aka a short school bus), I didn’t have a clear understanding of what sort of experience we would have at Ford‘s headquarters the next day.
We were served a beautiful dinner. Roast tenderloin of beef with mashed potatoes and vegetables. No complaints from me. Until, that is, I spent the better part of the night hugging the toilet as I gave the whole meal back up, one flush at a time. Stomach bug? Mojitos? A little bit of both, perhaps. No matter, it wasn’t enough to quell my enthusiasm for the day’s presentations.
Divided into groups, we toured Ford’s Research and Innovation Centre making four stops. Throughout the building.
First stop, Light Weight Materials.
A small group of
nerds engineers showed us some of the work Ford is doing with materials in the effort to save weight. The idea is simple: it takes less fuel to move 2,500 pounds than 3,000 pounds. Reduce weight, increase fuel efficiency.
We were shown various parts made out of the existing materials (steel, glass, and aluminum) and equivalent parts made out of new materials (high-strength steel, polycarbonate, and magnesium). The weight savings is quite remarkable. According the US federal government, every 100 pounds can impact fuel efficiency by 2%.
Next stop, Bio Materials Lab.
Here they gave us a glimpse into the new, eco-friendly plastics and foams that Ford is working on. By working soy oil into foams, Ford diverts huge volumes of oil from being used in Vehicle headrests and seat cushions. Other fibres, like leftover wheat shafts from Ontario farmers’ fields, are mixed with conventional plastics to make parts like storage bins in the Ford Edge. Because the wheat takes the place of other fillers, like glass, recycling is made easier. So the advancements continue to pay dividends down the road (pun!).
Perhaps the most interesting point was when they told us Ford’s policy on eco-friendly materials had shifted, so that, if eco-friendly materials can replace conventional materials at the same or lower cost and meet the same performance requirements, the eco option must be chosen. It’s a big step forward.
Third stop, the Human Occupant Package Simulator lab.
Here, Ford uses motion capture (film and video game peeps call it “mo-cap”) to analyze the ease of ingress and egress of products that haven’t yet been brought completely into the physical world. The simulator is a large rig that can be positioned precisely by computer control to mimic a proposed vehicle’s seating and door openings. A subject then dons a mo-cap suit, essentially a unitard with ping-pong balls on it, then, with digital cameras rolling, Ford collects the data they need and can use it to predict if a proposed vehicle design is going to work.
The final stop, the Human Machine Interface lab.
Here engineers are testing future technology developments in a virtual environment. In this case, the engineers are looking at people’s interactions with the technology in the car, including new features being added to the MyFord Touch system. The whole simulated car is set up with a simulated town to drive around in with the use of projectors and a variety of screens to replicate rearview and side mirrors. It’s impressive looking, for sure.
Climb behind the wheel, drop the car in drive and, aside from feeling like the most elaborate yet boring video game you’ve ever played, you’re behind the wheel of some unknown Ford or Lincoln vehicle. This setup allows the engineers to test if new systems, touch, voice or tactile are able to enhance the driver’s control without distracting them from the task at hand – driving.
I may have almost thrown up a dozen times over the course of my morning at the Research and Innovation Centre, but just as I had hoped, I got to meet a small part of the Ford team charged with dreaming up new solutions to problems that are several years away. For example, Ford’s been working actively on soy-based plastics for over 10 years already.
Was I impressed? Heck yes. What’s more, I know they’re showing us the “public knowledge” stuff and not the top secret stuff, but nevertheless, I’m thrilled to report that automakers, or at least Ford, are burning the midnight oil to make cars greener through planet-friendly plastics, lighter parts, and efficient vehicle development.
Big thanks to Ford Canada for the top-notch accommodations and travel arrangements.
Photos provided by Ford (thanks for those, too, Ford)