You might think that many of today’s production cars are, well, a wee bit boring; just nondescript metal boxes with not much to set them apart. But, in the future, Ford thinks you might be able to personalise your motor to suit your taste, even if you don't actually have any. Thanks to increasingly innovative materials and improved manufacturing techniques the old school interior that we’ve been used to for the last few decades might be about to change. Cars might even become quirky again.
Gizmodo recently took a trip to the Ford Design Centre in Cologne and inside this hush hush establishment many of the clever touches are devised that make cars way better than they used to be. The Ford Easy-Fuel innovation, that prevents you filling up with the wrong fuel is one fine example, but there are many more.
The new Ford Puma, to bring things bang up to date, boasts something called the MegaBox, which is just that. Inside the boot of the car lies a large 80-litre plastic box that can be used to store anything and everything. The brilliant part about it is it has a drain plug that means you can hose out the boot if you’ve filled it with muddy wellies, or worse.
New model army
Of course, the facility also designs whole cars, from the ground up, including that very tasty new Ford Puma, which actually doesn't look like a humdrum metal box at all. Several examples of the eye-catching new model based on the Ford Fiesta platform were there when we dropped by, as was the revitalised Ford Kuga. And while the cars were very cool, we also got to see a lot intriguing creativity surrounding interior design including Ford’s funky 3D knitted seats.
Although Ford staff stated that their findings were, at present, just part of a study, they seemed very confident features like 3D knitted seats could become a distinct possibility in the future. We saw a machine that knitted everything together in one piece, meaning an end result that didn't have seams. In fact, the Ford Design Centre is a veritable weaving wonderland. By way of examples they showed off a selection of natty seat covers, including some examples that had been personalised with the likes of a Cologne skyline logo and individual name designs incorporated into the backrest part of the cover.
Aside from the novelty items though, it was easy to see how the 3D knitted seat aspect, just one of many ideas that the Ford Design Centre is working on all the time, could eventually speed up productivity. More importantly, the cost savings could also be huge. While there’s a lot of time and money being invested in research and development, the resulting seats could eventually be produced by one machine and without the need for people or equipment to stitch together the component pieces in the way it’s done now.
Not only that, the Ford creative team explained that further down the line the same seat coverings could be produced from a variety of materials. While this would include a more obvious synthetic covering such as polyester, they underlined how the complex weaving machine that’s in development could combine materials too. They showed us one sample that had a combination of coverings woven together. So, say wool and silk could feature in a one-piece seat cover alongside the more durable synthetic coverings that get more wear and tear in locations like seat bolsters. But it would still be knitted as a one-piece creation.
However, there’s more to this fascinating area of car innovation. The designers also revealed that there’s loads of potential for having seat coverings that could be connected. One day, they said, we might be able to get a health diagnosis from our seat covering, as well as making calls or opening and closing the car windows. A convenient stitched-in phone pocket on the side of your seat might, perhaps, allow you to charge it via the conductive covering. Quite how this would be triggered to happen has yet to be determined, but maybe a buttock-clench or similar move might be the way forward? We’re not designers, so we just listened.
Seriously though, taking material and manufacturing nods from other industries, including running trainers, sports tops and even furniture, the team were able to illustrate how much potential smart seats of the future could have. Some of the ideas for better interiors have already made it to production, with the new Ford Puma set to feature removable seat covers that use a natty zipper design. Got melted chocolate in the crotch area of your driver’s seat? Simply take it off and bung it in the wash.
Old meets new
Ford Design Centre bods were also on hand to showcase how the creative process now relies heavily on digital methods to produce new additions to the range. Although clay models are still produced Ford designers are increasingly using VR to produce mock-ups, with interiors in particular being much easier to develop in a virtual environment. Time is money and this quicker method of designing is hugely helpful in terms of efficiency.
If you think you know your way around Photoshop then what the creative team at Ford can do with that software simply blows the mind. Initial freehand drawings are subsequently imported into Autodesk’s VRED, which is 3D visualisation software that allows creative visions to be gradually turned into full-on hugely detailed interior designs. Despite the fact that many designers love their Macs we noted that all of this work was being done on a Windows-based platform, with a beefy Dell desktop machine chuntering away in the background.
We even got to try out the system too. Sitting in a car seat, donning a VR headset and holding a pair of virtual hands we picked and prodded our way around a saloon interior. However, getting to this point had involved many hours of creativity using a 360-degree sketching tool, which itself was developed by one of the in-house designers after he realised the need for a specific way of producing views from the driver’s point of view and other angles.
Also present at the Ford Design Centre were the folks from Bang & Olufsen, which has worked with the car manufacturer on its in-car entertainment systems. They showcased the speakers packed into the Puma and Kuga models, which apparently took around 3,000 hours of tweaking, fine-tuning and sound mixing to get just right. The collection of cuts they blasted out certainly sounded pretty darn impressive, including a chunky rendition of the Star Wars theme tune.
Add it all together and it’s easy to see why the R&D that goes on at the Ford Design Centre is such a critical part of the car production process. More importantly for us, in the future these new production techniques might mean that we’ll be able to personalise our cars way more than ever before. Today’s mundane and rather boring metal boxes might just be a thing of the past.