Ford’s “Future Vehicle User Experiences”

Ford have announced that they will be investing $4.5 billion in electric vehicles. According to the website the aim is “to create future vehicle user experiences”

2011 Ford Focus Electric.
2011 Ford Focus Electric.

The end result is that 40% of its vehicle line up will be electric after they have modified some cars and added others (13 electric nameplates, apparently). Among the changes, the Focus Electric will have a 100 mile range and a quick charge of 80% to get people going without too much waiting. This sounds great but among the statistics is that Ford is investing a non-whopping $2.2 million dollars in battery R&D at the University of Michigan. $2.2 million is what they spend on a revised interior door panel. I would suggest that figure is too small by two orders of magnitude.

Putting this into perspective, as of 2011 Nissan had spent $5.6 billion on electric cars. Toyota is spending $13 billion on improving fuel efficiency and electrics (related), according to the Economist. So is $4.5 billion enough and, if one looks at the success of the Renault Fluence and Zoe, is it also too much? We seem to be in a phase where there is uncertainty about which systems will work out the best; which batteries, which PHEV systems, which architectures. Tesla has bet the farm on pure electric and seem to be winning (which is the case is a dispute conducted with the fervour of the climate denier/climate change argument).

In the light of yesterday’s article, it seems that this is another step towards the time when the ICE is at the least only one of many storage/power systems and perhaps not the dominant one either.

While individuals might have an axe to grind concerning drivetrains, car companies themselves are probably agnostic on this and if selling cars requires non-ICE systems then the manufacturers will use those. I think the process of ditching petrol and diesel won’t be slowed by the tears of BMW or Toyota.

The language of Ford’s press release needs explaining: “vehicle user experiences” they say. This is what the press release said: “Ford [is] also redefining how future vehicles are created, moving from a features-based product development to a customer-experience-led process, applying insights from social scientists”. That sounds quite interesting and progressive but what does it mean?

On the one side we have the usual design process of finding out what stuff people want in their cars and what they want the stuff to do. On the other, a “customer-experience-led process”. The features that the old system designed lead to experiences which the designer hopes are good. And the experiences the customers will have in the new system will depend on physical things, otherwise known as features which need to be designed. The change might be the application of social science insights, then because designing features is still going to be done.

But anyone whose read about or done market research of any kind know this is all based on the canon of social science. Ford has been using social science methods since the Cortina, if not before. So what’s new? Is it an emphasis on the experience side of the equation and not the “thing” side of the equation? I have to write in a find out.

To save you the trouble here’s a chunk of text from Ford’s press release. I see some ethnography in there. That might sound new to some but it’s part of standard user-centered design practices. And let’s not forget that lucky designers went to the Cote D’Azur to research the Lexus SC430. That was fifteen years ago and that was ethnography.

It sounds like Ford would be a great place to look for a PhD grant in something…

Here’s the text [with some interjections].

“In addition to traditional market research, Ford is investing in social science-based research globally, observing how consumers interact with vehicles and gaining new insights into the cognitive, social, cultural, technological and economic nuances that affect product design.

[Cognitive is a great word!]

“This new way of working brings together marketing, research, engineering and design in a new way to create meaningful user experiences, rather than individually developing technologies and features that need to be integrated into a final product,” Nair said. “We are using new insights from anthropologists, sociologists, economists, journalists and designers, along with traditional business techniques, to reimagine our product development process, create new experiences and make life better for millions of people.”

Next year, Ford is doubling the number of projects that use ethnographic research versus this year.

The team of social scientists already has spent months exploring topics such as the future of luxury transport, how people form relationships with their cars and the role of trucks in the American heartland.”

[Months? People routinely spend years exploring these topics as part of PhD programmes.]

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

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