Ford country

WORDS and PHOTOS: Dylan Culhane

“This is Ford country,” went the ubiquitous TV jingle for the ’67 Galaxie. The slogan still persists as a mantra uniting enthusiasts the world over (“Ford-koppe” in the local parlance). But, if the truth be known, the capital city of Ford country is undoubtedly Dearborn, Michigan.

The home town of Henry Ford, Dearborn is, and always has been, the locale of Ford’s international headquarters. By establishing the world’s first moving assembly line in the nearby metropolis of Detroit in 1913, Henry Ford’s pioneering enterprise sowed the seeds for the city’s longstanding reputation as Motor City, USA.

 But somewhere along the line, Detroit’s status as the automotive hub of America began to wane in proportion to the number of imports flooding the US market. The latter half of the last century saw a steady declining population as the devastating economic effects of deindustrialisation pushed inhabitants away from what was once the fourth-largest city in America. A recent census estimates that, in the last decade alone, almost a quarter of Detroit’s inhabitants have packed their bags for more prosperous frontiers. Consequently, vast tracts of the city’s nearly 360 square kilometres — enough to fit Boston, San Francisco and Manhattan with room to spare — now lie largely vacant.

Despite this, the Ford Motor Company continues to thrive in Dearborn, largely due to a single factor: innovation. The era of all-American V8 muscle and submarine-sized sedans is behind us, and a sea change in automotive industry is afoot. At this year’s North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) it was glaringly evident that economy, safety, and environmental-friendliness were the buzzwords amongst the world’s leading manufacturers. Ford’s darling of the show – the much-talked-about 2013 Fusion – embodies these new ideals, and looks set to drastically increase their market share in a phenomenally competitive mid-sized sector. According to Sherif Marakby, Ford’s director of all things electrically driven, “every single piece of hardware and software of the hybrid system is brand new… it’s our next-generation hybrid system.” Available as an EcoBoost, hybrid and plug-in hybrid, the 2013 Fusion is as conscience-soothing as it is magnificent to behold. Naturally, Ford is rather proud of it.

Sadly for South African consumers, it’s unlikely that we’ll be seeing the Fusion on our shores anytime soon. Nevertheless, as the template for Ford’s new paradigm, it’s more than likely that the numerous technological advances showcased by the Fusion (the most significant of these, of course, being the hybrid engine) will eventually find their way into new local models. Furthermore, as Ford strives toward its goal of One Ford, we can expect the exterior design of cars in all markets to gradually unify. With the 2013 Fusion as the new gold standard, this is good news.

As an invited guest of the Ford Motor Company to NAIAS 2012, I also had the rare opportunity to attend the Innovation and Design Fantasy Camp at Ford’s product development centre in Dearborn. It provided fascinating insight into motoring’s technological frontier and the extent to which design plays a pivotal role in all aspects of the field. Kicking off with a panel discussion about the creative process with speakers such as Evan Orensten (Executive Editor of Cool Hunting) and Scott Belsky (founder of the Behance Network) in the same hall where Ford’s new models have been unveiled for the last half century, the symbiotic relationship between creativity and innovation was thoroughly emphasised.

These ideals are manifested in the subsequent labs we toured, starting with the modelling studio, where to-scale and life-sized models of imminent releases and conceptual designs are created by a team of highly skilled artists the good old-fashioned way: with clay, by hand – the same way it’s been done for the better part of a century. Despite game-changing advancements in digital imaging (of which I saw plenty as the tour progressed), there really is no better way to fully envision a new creation than by walking around an “anatomically correct” version of it, resplendent in metallic paint finish and chiselled down to the most minuscule detail (sadly, this was the ONE place where photographs weren’t allowed!)

In the digital design lab, another team dedicates itself to sketched, linear, and three-dimensional renderings of new automobiles. Mind-blowing technology enables these digital artists to photograph any given environment and then locate the vehicle within this hyper-realistic world to assess the way in which light falls on, and reflects off, the exterior design. It also enables the design team to pre-visualise the subtlest colour variations in (for example) sunny, overcast or showroom conditions. It’s difficult to believe that these rendered images are created from scratch using a computer and not photographed. The level of detail attainable is microscopic; almost more real than real. It isn’t uncommon for this design lab to produce promotional videos that would dupe anybody into believing they were filmed in Manhattan or The Rockies, as opposed to a laboratory in Dearborn, Michigan.

Human interaction is also a fascinating aspect of the design and innovation process. Employing the same motion-tracking technology used in Hollywood to animate films like Avatar, scientists fastidiously track the movements of human test subjects getting in and out of cars, reaching for handles, adjusting dials on the dashboard, and countless other movements we take for granted in the driver/passenger experience, in order to optimise efficiency and comfort. These tiny refinements are a necessary response to the challenge of perpetually downsized interiors. Owing to factors such as fuel efficiency, safety technology (roll-bars; airbags) and shifting attitudes to automobile design, the Fiesta you drive today is a heck of a lot smaller inside than your Grandpa’s Fairlane. This necessitates an ongoing re-evaluation of spatial interaction between the human and the machine.

This idea continues upstairs, where a different laboratory focuses solely on sitting technology. That’s right – the driver’s seat is effectively the touchstone between driver and vehicle. Minor adjustments can have a dramatic effect on posture, comfort and, ultimately, safety, as factors including fatigue, concentration, visibility, control and comfort come into play. In a simulator that resembles a video game, researchers demonstrated developments in their current project: voice-activated hydraulic seat controls, whereby uttering “recline seat” does exactly that.

Finally, we were given a brief overview of some of the advancements in sustainable materials employed by Ford. As cars become increasingly plasticised, the impact on the environment naturally becomes a significant concern. Ford’s research and innovation team has been developing progressive approaches to this ubiquitous challenge for more than a decade and, as a result, has positioned the company at the forefront of this field. It’s surprising to learn how much organic material finds its way into the seatbelts, window-winders, cup-holders and other nooks and crannies within the car. Soy beans, for example, are used to create the polyurethane foam within seats in many Ford models, while natural resources such as grain and coconut husk are developed into biodegradable plastic for various other components. The balance between degradation and longevity is what scientists attempt to negotiate in this field – it’s important that as much synthetic material as possible eventually decomposes, but this can’t happen too soon lest the car itself begins to perish.

It’s been said that the automobile industry faces a potential crisis as an ascendant PlayStation generation grows increasingly disinterested in real cars. In the opinion of J Mays, Ford’s Group Vice President of Global Design and Chief Creative Officer, the computer is today’s equivalent of the hot rod, implying that tinkering around under the bonnet and cruising the strip with friends at the weekend doesn’t have the appeal it used to. Mays is nevertheless confident that a new era in motoring, one that relies on the skilled application of design and technology more than ever before, possesses great allure for younger people in search of a stable and fulfilling career. 

Perhaps this new technological dawn is just what Detroit needs to reverse its fortunes. The vision, it would seem, is to reinstate Henry Ford’s home town as the centre of the automotive universe.

Disclosure: Ford Motor Company paid for my travel and accommodation at the two-day Innovation and Design Fantasy Camp even. I was not compensated in any other manner for my time. My opinions posted here are my own.