Last week, at the invitation of Ford Motor Company, I attended a two-day media conference at the company's world headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan.
Billed as Forward with Ford 2011, futurists and trend spotters along with Ford's designers, scientists and product specialists gave us insight into the consumer and development issues the company is working on to meet the needs of the future.
There were about 150 attendees – automotive and eco journalists, technology reporters and influential bloggers of many stripes – for whom Ford covered all travel, accommodation and meal expenses. Aside from hotel tips, I didn't spend a dime.
Cynic that I am about all corporate public relations, I was nevertheless sucked in - happily. What Ford did for two days was show us a lot of fascinating innovation – some currently available in their cars and some still in development – and I learned a lot.
Who knew the company has a smell lab in which they test for and correct offensive odors from components?
Or that they use the same motion sensing technology as animated film makers to understand how people move within automobiles. (Note the sensors on this guy's head, legs and arms.)
Or that there is an entire department devoted to studying and developing the sound of horns for different kinds of vehicles which includes, in addition to safety, incorporating cultural influences that inform Ford about the audio preferences of people in different countries.
In an effort to reduce the weight of cars for fuel efficiency and for eco-sustainability, they are also working with soybeans, coconut, hemp and other natural substances to replace or partially replace plastics.
Before this conference, the only thought I'd ever had about car manufacturing was a mental image of someone on an assembly line bolting one part to another. But, of course, that was a personal failure of imagination.
Anyone who reads this blog can easily guess that the session I was most interested in was on aging in relation to cars and I'll tell you about that tomorrow. Today, it's the test track where we got hands-on experience driving cars.
First, the track is enormous – the size of many football fields - and in fact, it once was an airport. Ford uses the control tower to monitor weather for people testing their vehicles.
There were seven demonstrations including some contests for which prizes were awarded – a target challenge, power challenge, an off-road course, an eco-driving challenge and all-season driving skills challenge. Me? I went straight for two others.
The connected car demos were fascinating, showing how sensors can save lives. In the one pictured below, the safety brake technology is able to detect another car, hidden from view, coming too fast toward an intersection and it stops your car soon enough to prevent a collision.
How many times in your driving life has a car appeared from nowhere and you slammed on the brakes missing a crash by inches and nearly giving you a heart attack in the aftermath. This was amazing demonstration not to mention important and useful technology.
But from the moment I first read about the conference, the one hands-on experience I wanted was the “park assist.”
According to a Ford-sponsored poll, nearly a third of Europeans suffer from “parkophobia” - the nerve-wracking experience of trying to parallel park. I have no doubt that at least an equal number of Americans suffer from it too; I have friends who will park half a mile from where they are going to find diagonal parking.
You have probably seen the television commercials for Ford cars (another manufacturer has a similar feature) in which the car parallel parks by itself. I have watched that commercial a dozen times and did not believe it.
I shouldn't care; it's not even technology I need because one of my (few) weird little talents is that I am a world-class parallel parker. People on sidewalks have actually applauded me for getting into tight spaces in one try.
So I was fascinated to see if the car is as good as I am. Can it do it in one go? Does it park close enough to the curb but not too far away? Does it even itself out between the two cars front and back?
When it was my turn to try out park assist, a Ford videographer – a terrific, interesting man named Mike Wood – asked if I would allow him to record my test drive from the back seat. Well, of course, and here it is:
As I said in the video, is that cool or what. The hard part is keeping your hands off the wheel as it turns itself. The natural, human instinct from all our years of driving is to grab it – the wheel should not be turning on its own. Except that in park assist, it should and must.
Did you notice that I never look behind? This is an excellent elder feature when, in our old age, it sometimes becomes difficult to turn our heads far enough to see behind us.
Tomorrow, I'll tell you more about the conference in general and particularly the session on aging.
Part 2 of this post is here.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Jeanne Waite Follett: Ask and Ye Shall Receive – Whatever