Ford Motor has been making a lot of promises lately. On Dec. 4, Alan Mulally, chief executive of the beleaguered Detroit automaker, pledged to Congress that in return for about $9 billion in loans, he'd limit executive compensation, renegotiate employee contracts, and definitively steer Ford toward making greener cars.
Mulally's plan to begin offering a family of hybrids, plug-ins, and all-electric vehicles by 2012 seems to have won over some skeptics in Congress and helped the bailout plan make progress in Washington.
Mulally was no doubt aided by the fact that the company's first hybrid sedan, the Ford Fusion, is due early next year. Along with its fuel-sipping gas-electric technology, the Fusion features an inventive interior designed to influence drivers' behavior and improve mileage. If Mulally has his way, the Fusion will be the first in a raft of clean burning, digitally savvy vehicles that help redefine the company as with-it and green.
The Fusion also heralds a new strategy for Ford, which tapped two outside design firms for help with the hybrid's design, a new tactic in a secretive industry that traditionally plays engineering cards close to the chest.
"We wanted to take advantage of design thinking, but we didn't know where to start," says Jeff Greenberg, Ford's senior technical leader in charge of developing the "Smart Gauge" dashboard. Greenberg adds that the company desperately wanted to find a way to differentiate the Fusion from other hybrids.
First, Ford turned to IDEO, the Palo Alto, Calif., innovation and design firm that has worked with companies from Procter & Gamble to Bank of America. Together, Ford and IDEO conducted extensive user research, studying some three dozen drivers' habits throughout late 2006.
The test group ranged from drivers not familiar with gas-electric hybrids to efficiency-obsessed commuters. "Our big finding was that drivers interested in fuel efficiency were playing a game. They want a high score," says Steve Bishop, IDEO's global lead of sustainability.
To create an interface based on the research, Ford worked with New York-based Smart Design, known for creating the best-selling Flip camcorder for Pure Digital Technologies. In early 2007 a team of 10 Ford engineers and Smart designers went to work in the automaker's Dearborn, Mich., labs. The group created prototype dashboard concepts that were uploaded to Ford's Vertex driving simulator, an auto cockpit surrounded by massive video screens, the car version of a NASA flight simulator.
Giving drivers a wealth of information in an enticing format without confusing or, worse, distracting them, proved challenging.
"The safe amount of look-away time [from the road] is usually between .6 and 1 second," says Dan Formosa, co-founder and product designer at Smart. Complex features like graphs of fuel usage over time were quickly nixed.
To make drivers at ease with the information presented, designers simulated analog equipment. Fuel gauges, for instance, are represented by an image of a tank filled with an oil-like yellow liquid. The display is larger than a needle on a traditional fuel gauge. So with a quick downward glance, a driver can see whether fuel is low.
In order to play into the research finding that drivers are looking for a high score when it comes to fuel efficiency, one high-resolution LCD screen on the dash features an eye-catching rendering of curling vines blooming with green leaves. It's more than a decorative element; it's a data-visualization tool intended to change the way people drive.
If a driver wastes gas by aggressively accelerating or slamming on the brakes, for example, the vine withers and leaves disappear. More leaves appear if individuals drive more economically. The system will be standard on all new Fusion Hybrids, which will start at about $27,000.
Though the true test of who might buy the car is more than six months away, the Fusion Hybrid is already generating buzz with auto bloggers.
"Ford makes a good case for the Fusion," says Wes Brown, a principal at the Los Angeles automotive marketing firm Iceology, noting that it has superior fuel economy to Toyota's Camry hybrid, with which it will compete. The Smart Gauge, he adds, could very well be the kind of feature that creates brand loyalty with green-minded consumers.
Of course, Ford urgently needs to distinguish itself. Though the company scored a mild hit with its 2004 gas-electric Escape SUV, it has yet to post hybrid sales that compare to those of industry-leader Toyota, which has sold over 1 million Priuses. At least a half-dozen new hybrids from foreign competitors such as Honda and Nissan are due to hit the market over the next two years.
Plus, Ford isn't the only automaker placing bets on attention-getting green gadgets. Honda's 2010 Insight, which will be available next year for almost $10,000 less than the Fusion, also features a set of futuristic-looking gauges. Toyota's third generation Prius, which is due next year, will likely feature some kind of visualization tool of the car's green features.
"Ultimately, Ford needs to prove to the market it can lead, not just follow," says Brown. The Fusion's dashboard, says Greenberg, is an attempt to leapfrog the company's outsized competition and do just that.