DETROIT - Trends play an important role in product development at Ford. They give the company valuable insight on how to prepare for the future, particularly as it relates to in-car technology.
One of the highlights of the Ford display at the 2012 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) is the Living Connected Experience, which introduces visitors to five important trends influencing in-car technology – Information Overload, Access Without Ownership, Experience and Entertainment, Megacities and Changing Population – before sending them up a 20-foot-tall elevator to “the Cloud” where a 360-degree film gives them a glimpse of what life behind the wheel just might look like in the future.
“While no one will ever be able to predict the future, we do know that social, technological, economic, environmental and political forces offer important clues,” said Sheryl Connelly, manager, Global Trends and Futuring. “We have to anticipate needs and desires farther out, so we can deliver to our customers in the best ways possible.”
Connelly explains the five trends currently shaping the future of Ford.
“One of the trends we talk about is information addiction and how it’s so difficult for us to pull away from mobile devices that give us a constant feed of information,” said Connelly.
Connelly says people want the same connectivity in their vehicles that they enjoy in their home or office, and they’re not prepared to sacrifice that when they’re behind the wheel.
“So we have to find a way to give them that connectivity seamlessly and integrated into the car so that it’s intuitive and above all doesn’t distract the driver,” she said. “This trend explains to us why what we do with MyFord Touch and the latest edition of SYNC resonates so well with consumers in the marketplace.”
Access without Ownership
This trend started with the youngest consumers, the Millennials, says Connelly.
“These consumers don’t really care if they have the pink slip to the car as long as they have access to it and they can use it,” she said. And that’s not surprising when you consider all the other categories that they do that with.”
Connelly points to the fact that people can rent video games instead of buying them at places like Game Stop. They can even rent designer purses and accessories at online sites like Bag Borrow or Steal.
“Not owning it is sometimes preferable to some people because they don’t want to store, maintain or insure, and that helps explain the rationale behind why we developed a partnership with Zipcar and why we thought it would resonate so well with younger drivers,” said Connelly.
Connelly says many younger drivers aren’t getting their licenses as early as people did 20 or 30 years ago and the economic reality is that many young people today simply can’t afford to own a car outright.
“There will always be people who want individual car ownership but Zipcar gives them access to some Ford vehicles that they might not otherwise have an opportunity to drive,” she said. “And we know that when people leave Zipcar they usually do it because they’re buying their own vehicle and this gives us an opportunity to create a relationship and build loyalty that will play out a couple of years from now.”
Experience and Entertainment
Connelly says in mature markets like the U.S., Canada and Western Europe, material possession isn’t the hallmark of status or success that it once was.
“People are growing increasingly bored by ‘things,’ but the things that they are hungry for are experiences and ways to be entertained, educated or informed,” she said. “So it’s very important to engage people that way.”
Connelly says today’s vehicles need to entertain people in new ways.
“We talk about how you can get feeds of travel, sports, restaurants, weather forecasts all at your fingertips,” she explained. “That’s a different way to experience your car that takes you outside of horsepower, torque, driving performance and handling.”
But there has to be a balance, she says.
“When you think about information addiction and entertainment and experience trends together there’s always a countertrend and the backlash could be people being overstimulated,” she said. “People want to simplify their lives, and you can see that with Ford products, such as the customizable instrument panel.”
By customizing the instrument panel, people only have to look at the features and content that is relevant to them at the moment, says Connelly.
“One example I think about is RPMs. We often show RPMs on an instrument panel even if the car has an automatic transmission and it’s not as relevant to the driver,” she said. “Now drivers can click through the screen and find what’s more interesting to them such as fuel economy or a vehicle health report.”
Ford is tapping into the popularity of the gaming culture with the Smart Gauge technology offered on its hybrid vehicles.
“The Smart Gauge has green leaves that grow, and the more fuel efficient you become the more you are rewarded with additional leaves,” said Connelly. “It gives you storytelling and it also gives you that kind of constant feedback to tap in again to information addiction that says if I’m going to drive a hybrid I want to make sure that I’m making a difference and that it has an impact. It takes the intangible and makes it very tangible and accessible to the driver.”
According to Connelly, a megacity is defined as having a population of 10 million people or more. Worldwide there are roughly 20 megacities and that number will continue to grow, she says.
“Those living in densely populated urban cities will really change how people live, work and move about and so it’s really important for us to anticipate how that will play out,” said Connelly.
In largely populated areas of the world, much consideration is given to mobility and public transportation.
“Smaller cars are certainly a big part of that strategy,” said Connelly. “Throughout Europe small cars have been very popular. The streets are very narrow and the cars that we have here would be impractical and clumsy to drive around in there. So it’s important to understand urbanization and the restrictions that you have in space and moving about.”
One important example of changing population is the aging population, which is a global trend, says Connelly.
“We know with aging comes physiological changes that are inevitable – impaired vision, limited range of motion and reduced response time – and having that information helps better prepare us in terms of design and engineering features for the needs of those drivers.”
At Ford, engineers use Third Age Suits to help them better understand the physical complexities of being an older driver.
“The suits have straps and gadgets on them so a 25-year-old engineer can put it on and experience firsthand how difficult it is to lift your legs when you’re 70 years old and how difficult it is to bend down and move behind the driver’s seat,” explained Connelly. So it really builds empathy.”
The ultimate goal is to engineer vehicles for older drivers in a way that is a universal design that has appeal to whoever is behind the wheel whether they’re 60 or 16.
Up in “The Cloud”
When visitors to the Living Connected Experience go up the 20-foot-tall elevator into the cloud, Ford gives them a glimpse of what it may be like to drive a car many years from now, especially in the area of vehicle-to-vehicle technology.
“Vehicle-to-vehicle technology will be able to tell you things like whether you’re going to encounter an accident on your daily commute or whether there is construction ahead and you need to consider an alternative route,” said Connelly.
“Today, we’re bringing information to help us keep connected in the context of the car but in the future we will really be keeping connected in the context of the environment that surrounds the car in a way that we’re not doing right now,” she said. “It will be done in a real-time way and it will be relevant to what you’re doing.”
Much of what happens in the future is reliant on other factors, says Connelly.
“A lot of it will rely on what government does in terms of civil infrastructure and what kinds of regulations come into play,” she said. “So it’s not just advances that we’ll make but we’ll be making advances in conjunction with other enterprises or institutions.”