Now with a key research and innovation centre in California’s Silicon Valley, Ford’s third research facility, the company has turned to at least one unlikely science in designing and developing its new mobility technologies.
Anthropologists now join the propeller-heads, software geeks, communication platform specialists and engineers incubating new ideas and feeding into the design research done there.
That they are there is recognition that the future of personal transport is more than just ‘mobility’.
“People want to bring their digital lives into their vehicles, but how do we make those things compatible with driving?” Parrish Hanna, Ford’s Global Director of Human Machine Interface (HMI) said.
The sub-text to Mr Hanna’s question is “so that they are not reading or sending texts from their laps”; and this is a conversation Ford is having within itself and keen to also have with the market.
“We are studying how human beings drive cars,” Jeff Greenberg, Senior Technical Leader for HMI, added.
“Understanding how people drive underpins what we do in studying the user experience when at the wheel.
“This,” he said, “is a study of the science of driving.”
A lot of driving he said is done with a level of autonomy. “There is an episodic workload,” Mr Greenberg said, “and it’s important drivers can shift attention rapidly.”
This is about managing distraction within the car in the presentation of visual information, studying how drivers share their attention and how they can more safely manage the automotive interfaces of the modern car and the dual-task environment they create.
“(The task is to) design so that drivers focus on things that really matter,” Mr Greenberg said. “Vision is king in driver performance.”
This sits behind Ford’s voice technology as well as the design and layout of buttons and touchscreen operations. It’s to “reduce the visual demand” required to operate a vehicle and its ‘smart mobility’ communication technologies.
“We want to minimise the task interruption penalty so that drivers can concentrate on the primary role of driving.”
The challenge for Ford - and for all car manufacturers - is in designing the vehicle as the next multifunction device, in finding ways to simplify complex systems that can be operated with minimal driver distraction, while still allowing them to get the information they need.
“It’s about creating ‘ecosystems’ that are compelling and work really well,” Mr Hannah said.
And where better to study the ‘digital lives’ of drivers and the human machine interface than Silicon Valley?
“We went to the Valley deliberately,” Ford CEO Mark Fields said. “We want to be part of the community there. It’s a market-place of ideas.”
In this centre, 34 percent of Ford staff there hold PhDs. “You can feel the brainwave running around in there,” Mr Fields said.