Trucks at Work

Instrumentation interaction

The idea of the car coaching the driver became a core principle during our early prototyping [and] fed directly into the final product.” –Randal Visintainer, executive director, Research and Advanced Engineering.

I’m taking a step down into the automotive world again because there are some technology developments going on at Ford Motor Company that I think are pretty cool and exemplify an important design trend line we’re on when it comes to vehicles that could make a big difference to truck drivers in the very near future.

The issue is how drivers interact with vehicle instrumentation – and designing said instrumentation to make operating as well as monitoring the vehicle a whole lot more intuitive. Let’s face it: the dashboard is getting more and more crowded these days, for light vehicles and heavy trucks alike, so it behooves engineers to create gauges via which drivers can get all the information they need without getting too distracted as they drive.

In Ford’s case, those needs helped them design their new SmartGauge instrumentation package with a new “EcoGuide” cluster for its 2010 Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan hybrid cars to help drivers maximize fuel efficiency. True, now, these are hybrid cars here – not something that translates well into the heavy truck world – but it’s the use of a high resolution, full-color liquid crystal display (LCD) screen that makes this interesting to truckers.

Ford’s LCD gauge package – developed in collaboration with the help of IDEO, Smart Design, and Johnson Controls – can be configured by the driver to show different levels of information, including fuel and battery power levels, as well as average and instant miles-per-gallon. Taking a design cue from Ford’s hybrid leaf logo, Ford graphic designer George Macon developed an animation of growing leaves and vines that tracks and rewards the driver’s efficiency.

“It is much more interactive and integral to the whole driving experience,” said Paul Mascarenas, vice president-engineering for Ford Global Product Development.

Yet it’s the design input from real drivers that is the big trend here. Mascarenas said design research and rapid prototyping proved critical to the development of the SmartGauge, and that process in turn relied on observing dozens of consumers in their homes, cars, and communities to gain insight into how people measured efficiency in different areas of their lives.

“Every person the teams talked to a variety of drivers to help us better understand how people interact with their vehicles and what kinds of features they wanted,” said Randal Visintainer, Ford’s executive director-research and advanced engineering.

As a result of that “real world” feedback, Ford’s final LCD “EcoGuide” dashboard design allows drivers can choose one of four data screens, including:

Inform: Fuel level and battery charge status

Enlighten: Adds electric vehicle mode indicator and tachometer

Engage: Adds engine output power and battery output power

Empower: Adds power to wheels, engine pull-up threshold and accessory power consumption

All levels are customizable to show instant fuel economy, fuel economy history, odometer, engine coolant temperature, what gear the car is in and trip data, including trip fuel economy, long-term fuel economy and miles to empty.

Visintainer added that Ford tried to make the instrumentation more “user friendly” by placing it right in front of the driver where they want it.

Two other user-friendly elements are SmartGauge’s dealership demo mode, which offers a quick overview of the cluster’s benefits to prospective buyers, and the owner tutorial mode, which is a more in-depth look at its features and functions. Johnson Controls helped design the demo and tutorial as well as SmartGauge’s “greeting” sequence – literally building a “self-help” guide into the dashboard cluster.

This also only the beginning of the process of redesigning instrumentation, added Mascarenas. “Watching this technology come together was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever seen at Ford,” he said. “Everyone really was feeding off each other to push the bar – and we already have strong ideas about where to take it in its next generation.”

It’ll be interesting to see where this goes, and how it gets adapted to heavy trucks to make the delivery of information easier and more intuitive for commercial drivers.