Manufacturers that create technically sophisticated products like to reduce their complex processes into neat, memorable, consumer-relevant terms. By choosing those terms wisely, customers and social media pundits can get their hands around what the company is all about. In many cases, such a focused view of a company’s strategy will also reveal its plans in regards to social responsibility.

At the recent Forward with Ford 2011 event in Dearborn, Mich., Ford Motor Company took its focused, media-friendly approach to the next level. The event offered guests a chance to go behind the scenes and witness some of the testing that goes into modern vehicles, talk to the experts who do the testing, observe demonstrations of current projects in the R&D labs, and even drive several new Ford vehicles on the test track.

Ford grouped its presentation into six categories:

  • Safety for all ages
  • Emerging technologies
  • Aging population
  • Living green
  • Global design convergence
  • Engaging your senses

These themes cross over the boundaries of traditional automotive systems, such as powertrain, safety, chassis, body electronics, and infotainment. If some of the projects demonstrated at the event get to market, they’ll probably create at least one or two new vehicle system classifications.

A Behind-The-Scenes Look At Testing

Outside of exterior styling, the first impression of satisfaction with a particular vehicle will occur when the customer enters the vehicle. Nanxin (Nancy) Wang, a technical leader in Ford’s Human Factors Engineering Lab, explained that Ford researchers use a sophisticated testing system to obtain information. It goes beyond what most customers are able to provide from actual evaluations.

With the test setup, Ford engineers can adjust the door opening to evaluate driver access and ease of sitting behind the wheel. Sensors on a test subject provide feedback regarding the degree of difficulty for a particular size individual to enter the vehicle. Information is captured via 14 infrared (IR) cameras.

Similar to the way that computer graphics create computer-generated actors for movies, the instrumented technician provides the key data for the simulator. The combination of motion sensors and IR camera data allows detailed computer analysis of the subject’s entry and exit from the vehicle. The analysis includes evaluation of the tallest to smallest target subjects.

The evaluations allow Ford engineers to provide the comfort expected by customers when getting behind the wheel. Using commercially available computer-aided design (CAD) systems, including Dassault Systèmes CATIA software as the foundation, Ford engineers specifically designed the human factors analysis software (Fig. 1).

Once the driver has the vehicle on the road, unusual sounds or lack of noise can make all the difference between an acceptable and unacceptable driving experience. To identify and eliminate noise, Ford researchers developed a tool called “noise vision” that allows them to “see” where the sound is coming from.

Tim Mouch, an engineer in Powertrain NVH within Vehicle Engineering at Ford, demonstrated how to isolate, identify, and ultimately eliminate specific noises in Ford’s Noise, Vibration and Harshness Lab (Fig. 2). Specially developed software allows Ford engineers to extract and eliminate unwanted sounds in a prioritized manner. Selecting a specific frequency range, such as 215 to 2000 Hz, helps pinpoint the location of the noise source.

The analysis combines the information acquired from a globe fitted with 31 microphones within a 12-picture space—a 4 x 3 matrix—for upper hemisphere, equator, and lower hemisphere views. The microphones record sound with the same quality level as high-fidelity 44 kHz recordings.

"What we do is we overlay the sound on top of the image, and with just a little bit of math, we are able to determine where the sound comes from," said Mouch.

With this process, it becomes possible to identify a specific noise event and display the actual sound spectrum to determine how the sound radiates from the source. In a vehicle test with actual road conditions, special software developed by Ford’s engineers provides a sound model to analytically extract and eliminate sounds.

“We can look at sounds in a Pareto,” said Mouch. The software and process allows for prioritized identification of noise sources and sound-reduction efforts.

With all of the sophisticated tools in the Ford analysis arsenal, one area remains strictly in the hands, actually noses, of experts. Ford uses an odor jury to determine the materials in the passenger compartment that provide the right new car smell. So far, they haven’t found success in implementing electronic nose technology for the R&D environment.

Voice Recognition On The Rise

Some of Ford’s advanced projects use the company’s SYNC system as the platform for wireless connectivity and driver-vehicle interactivity. The system enables Bluetooth connectivity to vehicle-based systems for users’ cell phones. It also features advanced voice recognition and text-to-speech capabilities for hands-free driving.

According to Bridgette Richardson, voice control engineer, the hardware to implement Nuance, the voice-recognition supplier for today’s and the next-generation SYNC system, already exists: “There is nothing in research that’s five to seven years out—it’s all at most two to three years out. And voice recognition has its core software and logic. If you can dream it, you can think it; then we can do it.”

As long as the hardware keeps improving with Moore's Law predictability, voice-recognition experts will simply be able to do more. Greater central processing unit (CPU) resources will allow Nuance to perform more calculations, leading to higher-quality voice-recognition.

The vocabulary generally doesn’t take that much memory. In contrast, voice-recognition text-to-speech software requires about 20 Mbytes for the first-generation Ford SYNC system. Depending on the language, today’s system could have around 100 ±30 Mbytes. With the current SYNC system, voice-recognition and text-to-speech hardware and software exist in many Ford vehicles to add more functions in the future.

In-Car Health And Wellness

One of the more intriguing examples of how Ford could use its SYNC system’s connectivity capability involves the area of health and wellness. Using a collaborative approach similar to SYNC’s initial implementation, the company is partnering with companies to research how technology related to patient health could be implemented in its vehicle. Check out Factoids that Impact Drivers, Passengers, and Vehicles for the numbers behind these efforts.

On the heels of a partnership with Aachen University in Germany, Ford recently announced the development of a seat that monitors the driver's heart rate. Six electrode sensors in the backrest monitor the driver’s heart rate, providing a contactless electrocardiograph (ECG). The technology could be linked with other vehicle systems to reduce risk for drivers with heart conditions.

In another collaboration involving Medtronic, a leading supplier of medical equipment, researchers are working on a prototype system that allows SYNC to connect via Bluetooth to a Medtronic continuous glucose monitoring device on a diabetic patient. Such connectivity provides glucose levels and trends to the driver or passenger patient through the vehicle’s audio system and its center stack display. If levels drop too low, a secondary alert occurs.

For most people, one constantly available tool for medical applications is the cell phone. Connectivity from the cell phone to the car is established by Ford’s SYNC system. The car recognizes the patient by his/her cell phone, which may allow the implementation of in-vehicle health systems without exposing patient confidentiality. A couple of examples better illustrate ways to cope with glucose and asthma health problems through added software.

Dr. Anand Iyer, president and COO of WellDoc, and Dave Melcher, research engineer at Ford, explained how the vehicle could play a role in helping a person control type 2 diabetes. It simply involves enabling the Federal Drug Administration (FDA)-cleared WellDoc DiabetesManager System through Ford’s SYNC voice-activated in-car connectivity system.

An out-of-range glucose level is a potentially dangerous situation, especially while driving. Through Ford’s SYNC, the DiabetesManager conducts a dialogue with the driver/patient, potentially leading to the patient measuring his/her blood glucose level if the proper responses don’t occur.

For an Allergy Alert system, engineers worked with SCI Health and Pollen.com, explained Ford research engineer David Watson (Fig. 3). “We’ve partnered with them to bring the interface from the iPhone into the vehicle.”

The Allergy Alert app provides location-based, day-by-day index levels for pollen, asthma, cold and cough, and ultraviolet sensitivity. Downloaded data from an iPhone is communicated through the SYNC system. Voice commands allow interaction with the phone. Then data is returned using the SYNC’s text-to-speech system, so that the driver can operate the vehicle and exchange data with the application.

Safety: The Ultimate Goal

No matter what terminology or classifications carmakers use for their vehicles, safety must be their number one concern. In a pioneering effort, Ford introduced the industry’s first inflatable seatbelt in its 2011 Explorer. The company plans to offer the system in other vehicles over time.

In addition to increased protection for rear-seat passengers, the inflatable belts are also more comfortable. Thus, Ford hopes to boost the 61% rear-seatbelt usage in the U.S. to at least 82%, which is the usage rate for front-seat passengers. In its Safety Pavilion, the company offered a slow-motion demonstration of the rear inflatable seatbelt on a child (Fig. 4).

Ford’s safety efforts are directed at all age groups. One goal is to develop more lifelike virtual crash dummies, including detailed anatomies, to better understand how crash forces affect humans, as well as determine if a better restraint system can be designed.

A child crash dummy provides an example of how to execute improved testing. Rather than use a simple hard structure for the child’s abdomen, Ford used a softer, more realistic structure (its development was seven years in the making) (Fig. 5). Six sensor electrodes on the front surface and another electrode on the back with electrode gel inside of the test-dummy structure allow engineers to measure the resistance between the front and back.  

“With that, we can get a linear function of the compression of the abdomen,” said Steve Rouhana, senior technical leader and a biomechanics and crash-sensing specialist in Passive Safety Research and Advanced Engineering. “That tells us whether or not the child would be injured from a belt system that slipped up on top of the abdomen.”

Perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of safety was the in-vehicle experience of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology. (Check out A V2V Technology Update).Using 5.9-GHz wireless technology, the V2V system transmits a message 360° around the car at a 300-meter radius, a much greater range than traditional radar or lidar. If other vehicles have the same technology, it can produce warnings and collision-avoidance measures can be taken either by the driver or the vehicle itself.

Six V2V communications scenarios were demonstrated, but one involving an intersection offered an extremely dramatic example of its capability. The driver approached the intersection with a green light; however, he could not see the cross traffic because a large semi truck at the intersection blocked his view. In this situation, a vehicle in cross traffic runs the red light. When the vehicle with the green light and the right of way approaches the intersection, the V2V system detects the cross-traffic situation and issues a warning for the driver to take action, thus preventing a collision.

Of course, Ford isn’t the only company looking into many of these areas. Still, seeing Ford’s activity, which included several other ongoing efforts, in a condensed timeframe left a significant impression on media attendees. It appears that a considerably different vehicle experience awaits us all in the near future.