Article by Rick Jensen and Ryan Randels. Photography by Ryan Randels and Ford Media.
While daydreaming/coming up with catchy Ford Research and Innovation Center headlines for this story ("Pretty FRIC-in Cool” anybody? No?), I realized that in the last few years of my 14-year auto-writing career, I’ve spent nearly as much time discussing vehicle connectivity as I have writing about, you know, the actual vehicle.
And like the Ford GT’s massive air intakes, technology continues to consume the automotive world at a frantic pace. Today, the entry-level vehicles we drive are safer than they’ve ever been, and instead of being appreciative, we’re pissed when a $25,000 car’s infotainment system doesn’t have the same effortless UIs as our $700 iPhones. We bitch about it on web forums, nod emphatically when consumer websites badmouth systems that took years and millions of dollars to develop and put way too much weight on infotainment when it comes time to car shop. When did vehicle satisfaction start hinging on a Bluetooth connection?
Of course, some of these complaints are valid (and first-world problems. But still). In knee-jerk bids for relevancy, automakers dove into the deep end of connectivity, creating proprietary systems for their vehicles that were at best acceptable, and at worst, just bad. And after all that money and time, they realized that the auto industry’s decade-long development cycles might as well have been a thousand years compared to smartphone refreshes. There are a few bright spots out there, but while the iDrives and Teslas of the world are being fawned over, the majority of systems simply can’t compete.
Ford is a textbook case: it invested heavily in the SYNC and MyFord Touch infotainment systems, only to receive years of bad press. It just launched an improved SYNC 3 system for 2016-up models, but that’s just the start. Ford is thinking long-term, and the new Ford Research and Innovation Center in Palo Alto, CA will spearhead a push for Ford’s advanced technology to trickle down to all levels of its massive, global ecosystem. Connectivity is surely important, but the Blue Oval is also after cutting-edge mobility, customer experience, big data and autonomous vehicle technology.
And they sure picked the right place to start. Palo Alto is a tech worker’s paradise: Apple, Google, Facebook, HP, Skype and Tesla are some of the titans that call it home. Ford knew it had to become part of the Silicon Valley community to harness its energy and collaborate with the world’s top tech minds. So it opened the R & I Center in January 2015 where up to 125 tech professionals will work. Ford’s vision for the Center is simple: put consumers first, greatly advance technology and processes to address their needs and create a great user experience, not simply good functionality.
An effortless, intuitive user interface is the key to perfecting technology interaction. It also happens to be one of the tech world’s hardest targets. Ford knows UI as Human Machine Interface (HMI), and the R & I Center is using virtual reality to improve those interactions.
Anyone who’s collaborated on a work project knows that half the battle is just getting everyone on the same page. At car companies, creating an optimized vehicle requires everyone to understand the challenges and work together to solve them. The R & I Center uses virtual reality to add another dimension to this process.
"How will people interact with this vehicle?” is the multimillion-dollar question, and Ford’s virtual reality gives designers and engineers more effective insights into potential issues. For example, in-house designers use virtual reality rigs that let them walk around, sit in and explore the experience of a vehicle. This allows them to reproduce real-world scenarios to show how people will interact with the physical space in and around the vehicle. This helps them develop solutions, test those solutions and optimize the experience virtually, before the prototyping or production stages. Engineers use a similar engine control and drivability development process well before the actual vehicle ever sets a tire on the road.
Much like computer-based CAD programs multiplied the number of digital vehicle designs, Ford’s virtual reality setup multiplies the number of tests. More tests allow a better understanding of the problems, which equals better insights, which equals better products, which help create better processes too. It’s a fascinating system.
Also fascinating is the Materials and Lightweighting program, another important aspect of the R & I Center. Lighter weight means less fuel consumption and better vehicle performance, and Ford is using future technologies, designs and production processes to reach their goal.
For instance, Ford’s R&A and Chassis Engineering groups have collaborated to develop lightweight tires, wheels, rotors, coil springs and stabilizer bars for the Multi-Material Lightweight Vehicle (MMLV). These prototype components are undergoing component-level testing and will be included in the MMLV prototype vehicles for durability, corrosion, NVH and safety testing. The benefits are huge: 30 percent less weight and the fuel economy that goes with it, plus additional fuel economy and ride and handling benefits from reduced rolling resistance of the tires and the rotating inertia of the tires, wheels and rotors.
These new lightweight chassis parts can provide opportunities for future programs, but it only takes one look at the new F-150’s curb weight to see how game-changing this program could be if rolled out to the entire fleet.
It’s incredible to see how far Ford has come. Decades ago they were building forgettable malaise-era vehicles on par with the worst from GM and Chrysler. But by deftly avoiding a recession bailout, then making bold new investments like the aluminum F-150 program and this Research and Innovation Center, they’re quickly becoming an innovative force to be reckoned with.