A Glimpse Inside Ford's Research Labs
By Bill Moore
The dozens of international flags hanging inside the lobby of Ford's Scientific Research Laboratories say a lot about the nature of the automobile industry in the 21st century. My guides through multi-storied labyrinth pointed out that there would be more flags, each representing the home nation of at least one research lab employee, but they ran out of room. Mike Vaughn and Kay Milewski estimated they would need something like 58 flags in order to honor everyone, so the company periodically rotates the flags.
The Science Labs are located less than a mile inside the main entrance of its Dearborn, Michigan headquarters. Of the carmakers' nearly 17,000 scientists and engineers worldwide, an estimated 900 work at this facility on advanced research and engineering. The facility itself was originally built in 1953 and subsequently remodeled and enlarged in 1993, part of the fruits of Ford's booming SUV sales. The atrium-covered lobby actually serves to tie together the older brick building and the newer section.
I had asked Vaughn to arrange the tour since Ford's lab was the only one of the "Big Three" I hadn't been inside. It would be a relatively quick run-through, followed by a drive over to the company's Sustainable Mobility Technologies (SMT) unit where Ford preps and services its Focus fuel cell prototypes.
With Ms. Milewski leading the way, we climbed stairs and wound through empty corridors back to the Virtual Test Track Experiment (VIRTTEX) driving simulator lab, which is the auto industry's equivalent to an airline cockpit simulator for cars. Imagine a large white ball set ten feet or so atop a hydraulically-actuated tripod. Drivers and test cars reach the "ball" by retractable bridges.
Like its aviation equivalent, the movement of the vehicle is conveyed though motion and a 3D computer projection system, which according to Vaughn surrounds the car. While we were in the lab, only the front view projection system was turned on, covering about 120 degrees or so; basically the normal human field of view. The inside of the simulator "shell" is painted flat black, in the middle of which was parked a Volvo S80, painted the same color and specially-instrumented. Most recently, the car and the simulator has been used to develop technology that will hopefully prevent accidents caused bdrowsywy drivers. Mike Vaughn told me later that the system will be available on Volvos later in the decade.
Larry Cathey, the manager who runs the lab, was eager to talk about his system, and with my guides growing increasingly impatient, he insisted on having me sit in the car while he talked about the projection system, which depicts an imaginary highway stretching into a distant set of Michigan hills. The system was impressive, but Cathey said it wasn't as powerful as he'd like it to be. It would take significantly more computing horsepower to improve the resolution to the level of, say, a Gameboy or XBox. But for automotive needs, it suffices.
Eager to keep us moving, Milewski and Vaughn ushered me down the hall and into another laboratory, this one devoted to advanced manufacturing technologies like sonic welding, which uses sound waves to bind metals instead of heat. From here we quickly walked into and out of the dynamometer test section consisting of ten separate labs. There didn't appear to be much happening at the moment, so we walked down yet another hall looking for something a bit more interesting to see, Fortunately, we ducked into the vibration lab and ran into yet another Ford engineer who was clearly passionate about his work. I secretly wondered if all the other engineers and scientists in the lab are as excited about their jobs as the two I met.
One of the challenges of improving the quality of a car's ride is the subjective nature of testing. No two drivers will react alike, nor will drivers be able to exactly recall the subtle differences between minor changes in the car's set-up, the young man explained. That's where the vibration lab comes in. A test car is instrumented so that numerous ride parameters can be recorded. This data is then uploaded to the test machine, which consists of a car seat and adjustable steering wheel. The device is designed to duplicate the ride and feel of the original test vehicle, enabling engineers to more accurately tune the target vehicle's ride or more quickly identify problems.
From the vibration lab, we cruised past the catalyst lab where blue flames pulsed hypnotically through glass tubes on their way to through test catalytic converters. Milewski paused for a moment to tell me that Haren Gandhi, a Ford researcher who works in this very lab, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Technology, for his development of the modern catalytic converter.
In surprisingly short order, we found ourselves back under the flags and bidding Ms. Milewski goodbye.
From here I followed Mike Vaughn over to SMT, which once bore the name, Th!nk Mobility. Here Ford once prepped and serviced new Ford Ranger EVs just off the assembly line. Th!nk City electric cars imported from Norway also passed through this building on their way to demonstration programs in California and New York. Now the only symbol of the company's bdallianceiance with battery electric vehicles is a Th!nk Neighbor belonging to the Detroit Lions, which are owned by Bill Ford, Jr.. In the off season it's parked in the back of the garage collecting dust. The team physician uses it to move injured players off the field.
We were met by Laura Rego, a Ford marketing staffer who gave me a brief history of SMT as we walked through the warren of cubicles that occupies the front of the building. Following behind, Vaughn explained to me that most people who work here are developing Ford's fuel cell vehicles. Rego is one of three marketing staffers whose job now consists mainly of organizing demonstrations of the technology, a job that is going to get even more interesting as the company deploys more cars. Ford currently has more than 25 fuel cell Focus FCVs on the road, and will add another 30 cars in 2005, making it -- by my count, at least -- the world's largest fuel cell fleet.
We walked back into the garage where I counted nine Focuses -- most painted solid white and each costing about $1 million apiece, though Vaughn cautioned me that, "We don't talk about production costs on these engineering vehicles since they are almost hand-built. They are expensive... but your figure is a good industry estimate for per unit cost." As most people involved in building fuel cell cars argue, the cost will drop eventually with volume production. Whether that someday reflects reality or wishful thinking remains to be seen.
The garage isn't much different from what you'd find at your local Ford dealership. Some of the Focuses were up on hoists, while others sat in service bays waiting to be worked on or ready to be tested. Tony Gambrel explained the safety precautions his team must take every time a car enters the facility, starting with pointing out one of the many hydrogen sensors mounted near the ceiling on a structural I-beam. If the concentration of hydrogen reaches a dangerous level, the sensors will sound. As an added precaution, all the cars entering the garage have their hydrogen vented off to below 1000 psi, just enough to drive into and out of the garage. Finally, a special hand wand is used to "sniff" the car for any possible hydrogen leaks.
Gambrel then walked me under one of the hoisted Focuses and carefully explained the fuel cell system from stem to stern, or, more precisely bumper-to-bumper. This particular car had its hydrogen processor unit removed; it sat on a nearby pallet.
Each Focus is equipped with what appears to be about a 24 inch diameter, by 36 inch long carbon fiber storage tank capable of holding four kilograms of hydrogen at 5,000 psi. Gambrel told me the "target" fuel efficiency of the fuel cell-powered Focus is 50 miles per kilogram, which translates into 200 miles, if all the hydrogen in the tank were expended, though that's essentially impossible; so figure something under 180 miles real-world range, at best.
That's acceptable for an advanced technology demonstrator, but not for a consumer-ready product, at least based on current expectations.
Mike Vaughn and and Laura Rego were eager to have me drive one of their pride and joys, so we said goodbye to Gambrel and walked outside into a light mist. There parked chain linkhainlink fence was yet another FCV Focus. I'vseener seens so many of these cars in one place. They wanted me to drive, so I climbed into the left-hand seat and waited for instructions on how to start the car.
One of the early concerns about this technology is that the start-up time is too long, but I found the brief wait while the system turned itself on and ran its diagnostics acceptable. I turned the key to the first detente position. This started the fuel cell system. I waited what I think was less than 30 seconds and got a green light, which signals that I can now turn on the electric drive motor, another twist of the ignition key. From this point on, operating the Focus is just like its gasoline engine sibling.
I put the car in reverse and backed out of the parking slot. Nudging the shifter into drive, I slipped quietly along with Vaughn and Rego around the side of the brick, one-story office-park building and then out into the street for an all-too-short spin around the block.
Apart from the slightly elevated seats, under which is packed the Ballard fuel cell stack, and the perceptible whine of the fuel cell processor's air compressor, the car handles like any other Focus you'd get into with the exception of being nearly vibration free. The drive was just too short to get any more than the sense that the technology obviously works. It is possible to power a car with electricity produced from the recombination of hydrogen and oxygen in a fuel cell, technology that was first discovered over 150 years ago. The hydrogen can be produced from many diverse sources and is potentially renewable, though at present 80% comes from natural gas and most of the rest from coal gasification.
The result is a vehicle with zero tailpipe emissions, but one that is still extraordinarily expensive at the moment and has significant durability issues. Vaughn said Ford's confident these issues can be overcome, reminding me, "that is the nature of research and advanced engineering."
The tour over, Vaughn and I walked back to our cars, he to his Ford Escape (what else) and me to my rented Dodge Neon.
Noting that Ballard's Detroit facility was loacrossust accross the street, I commented on the misunderstanding I had with DaimlerChrysler and Ballard over the question of the durability of their automotive-grade proton exchange membranes, which resemble thin plastic wrap. I told him about the 200 hours controversy I caused late last winter and how Dennis Campbell, the president of Ballard, had told me that their immediate target was 1,200 hours, with the ultimate goal being 5,000 hours of operation, roughly equivalent to 150,000 miles of highway driving.
While Vaughn says he doesn't recall the conversation, it is my distinct impression that he smiled at the 1,200 hour figure, and said something to the effect, "The real number is probably somewhere in the middle." Maybe it's my faulty memory, maybe it's his. Regardless, he did state in a subsequent email that Ford's official position is that mass marketing and sales of fuel cell-powered vehicles is still more than a decade off.
That's why Vaughn likes what Ford is doing with its hydrogen-fueled internal combustion engine cars, again a trio of Ford Focuses, two of which I'd ridden in just the day before at the company's Michigan Proving Grounds. He later wrote me, "These have proven themselves durable, well-performing, clean vehicles that could be built and sold today... if society wants to take that step toward a hydrogen-powered future."
That's a big if, and a story for another time.
blog comments powered by Disqus