- - Thursday, February 10, 2011

The crisp click of a door lock or the precise feel of a window switch can make or break a customer’s initial experience with a vehicle. That’s why Ford engineers seek the perfect feel for the switches and dials on new vehicles, including the recently named North American Truck of the Year, the all-new 2011 Ford Explorer.

The science of haptics, which measures how consumers react to physical objects, has shown that touch evokes a strong visceral response. Objects with a strong, solid feel may convey an emotional response ranging from a feeling of high quality to an enhanced sense of security.

“In recent years, we’ve made significant strides in understanding perceived quality of touch and feel,” said Gary Strumolo, manager, Ford Research and Advanced Engineering. “We’ve developed sophisticated technologies and systems to study the subject and established the know-how and technical capabilities to design for best-in-class touch and feel.”

“Touch is an extremely powerful sense,” said Pietro Buttolo, technical specialist in Ford’s research lab. “It has an undeniable impact on people’s perception of a vehicle’s quality. Our research shows that touch is instinctive — people know immediately what they like, what feels good to them. Now that we understand those parameters, we’re designing to them.”

Touch is the first thing most people do when they get inside a vehicle. They grab the steering wheel and twist the knobs for the radio, heating and air conditioning. Those seemingly little things send big messages about a car.

Our research found that customers like their knobs, buttons, dials and switches to feel solid, but not jerky.
Our research found that customers like their knobs, buttons, dials and switches ... more >

In the all-new Explorer, for example, premium craftsmanship is a key priority. Designers focused on making the Explorer interior environment pleasing from both aesthetic and tactile perspectives — down to the smallest detail. The result is a redesigned switch package, including door locks, windows and mirrors.

“This new package of switches solidifies the feel of a quality, finely crafted vehicle,” said Electrical Manager Susan Young.

The changes may seem simple on the surface, but designing the changes is complex. Ford engineers initiated proprietary research that took into account smoothness and tension when determining the high-precision feel of the new switches.

“Our research found that customers like their knobs, buttons, dials and switches to feel solid, but not jerky. We achieve that feel by designing controls with crisp detents, but smooth transitions. When the clicks are distinct, they are perceived unambiguously, and the driver is in control. The smooth transition adds to the overall quality, confirming the impression of a solid design. A nice tight feedback sound can be augmented to enhance the overall impression of a crisp and robust control,” said Buttolo.

In the past, understanding how people sense quality through touch was an area largely unexplored by automakers. Unlike the designers of computer keyboards, mobile phones and kitchen appliances, car designers historically paid more attention to the impact they could have on other senses such as vision or hearing.

Now, Ford designers and engineers use special equipment to measure consumers’ preferences for tactile sensations including the proper amount of resistance on dials, knobs and latches. They use the results of the testing to design vehicle features that “feel right” to drivers and passengers since feedback through touch happens faster than through other senses.

Consumer perception of what constitutes a “high-quality feel” falls into a fairly narrow range that is measurable through consumer testing. As a result, Ford has established very strict criteria for the sense of touch — metrics to guide design engineers in creating the optimum comfort zone.

“At Ford we refer to these metrics as our DNA,” said Buttolo. “Other carmakers may only approximate their parameters for touch, but we are actually able to apply haptics metrics across the board to create vehicle interiors that are harmonious to consumers — and replicate them, Ford after Ford.”

Ford research shows that controls that feel great, with the right amount of friction and resistance, are also more precise. This puts the operator in control.

Ford’s advanced work in haptics is contributing significantly to the design of vehicle interiors. The all-new headlamp, window, mirror and door lock switches on the 2011 Ford Explorer have been designed to blend into a cohesive theme, which will become the blueprint for switches in the global Ford brand lineup.

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