COLOGNE, Germany – It’s a busy weekday morning at the local garden centre, and two middle-aged men have staked out a corner, quietly filming shoppers as they struggle to load bulky purchases into their cars.
This was part of an “undercover” operation by Ford engineers to learn more about challenges faced by drivers and passengers of smaller cars as they designed the all-new B-MAX multi-activity vehicle.
Engineers surreptitiously observed owners carrying out everyday tasks, including loading bulky shopping and attending to child seats, at local DIY stores, garden centres and schools. The team used small video cameras to record each task to be later analysed in detail.
Watching owners struggle with simple tasks, such as securing the harness on a child seat, gave engineers the inspiration to design the breakthrough door system on the B-MAX. Coming to market later this year, the B-MAX features hinged front doors and sliding rear doors which open to create a 1.5-metre unobstructed opening for unrivalled access. The sliding doors also come in especially handy in Europe’s tight parking spots.
“We normally spend most of the time in engineering labs and at our desks, so becoming an undercover agent was an exciting change of pace,” said Steve Fleming, product innovation engineer, Ford of Europe. “The insights we gained really prove that there is nothing like actually observing people in real life to understand their needs and find the solutions.”
Engineers would park out of sight to ensure their subjects were unaware they were being filmed and behave naturally. All required permissions were secured before and after filming began, with subjects consenting to being filmed on location – but not knowing when it would happen.
“We would wear casual clothing rather than our usual suits, so as not to appear too conspicuous,” Fleming said.
After analysing tens of hours of videos, Ford engineers also acted out the different scenarios to help understand why particular actions took place, and how problems could be overcome.
Armed with this knowledge, the innovation team proposed the new B-MAX door system, which features hinged front doors and rear sliding doors, and integrates the traditional central pillars into the doors, rather than forming part of the bodyshell. The 1.5-metre wide unobstructed openings on either side of the car are class leading.
“The concept for the door system came from one of our brainstorming sessions,” explained Fleming. “Having seen the difficulties created for customers by narrow door openings, we were determined to find a solution.”
Having come up with the idea, Ford’s innovation team tested the door concept with consumers and noted an immediate reaction.
“We saw straight away from the look on people’s faces. They couldn’t believe how easy it was to deal with those everyday tasks – we knew we were on to a winner,” added Fleming.