Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Ford's Green Plan to Drive Sales

Fords Green Plan to Drive Sales

Ford Motor (F) 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 (BusinessWeek, 12/8/08). 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.

Keeping Score

First, Ford turned to IDEO, the Palo Alto (Calif.) innovation and design firm that has worked with companies from Procter & Gamble (PG) to Bank of America (BusinessWeek, 6/19/06) (BAC). 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 (BusinessWeek, 4/17/08). 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.

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