Ford Motor Co.'s Ulrich Eichhorn boasts that he can pick out major handling problems with a new vehicle in 50 meters.
But finding and fixing every flaw before a prototype becomes a production vehicle takes much longer. In the past, Eichhorn and his staff of ride and handling engineers spent a year or more swapping out thousands of different components in search of the right combination. Ford now thinks it can cut this time in half and improve the results using computers.
This will be crucial if Ford is to meet its target of slashing vehicle development time to two years.
The company plans to find out the ride and handling qualities buyers like and replicate them with instrumented test vehicles. Computers use data from the instruments to create complex benchmark models against which engineers will compare new designs.
The computers can predict how proposed body, engine, suspension and steering combinations will behave in the real world, and compare them to the benchmark.
'Instead of being 20 percent there when we start driving prototypes, with (computer-aided engineering) we are 80 percent there,' says Eichhorn, manager of Ford worldwide vehicle dynamics. A development engineer then can work on 'a platform with no fundamental flaws.'
Ford began revamping its driving dynamics program eight years ago. In 1993, the company programmed about 1,000 models into its computers. This year, it expects to do more than 100,000.
Ride and handling programs at BMW and Mercedes-Benz already use the technology. Their cars feel the same on the road, which adds to the brand identity. Ford studied the Germans before developing its own program.
Ford hopes the experiments will mean all its models handle more like upscale sports sedans - agile, stable and predictable.
'We find these attributes are universally attractive,' says Neil Ressler, vice president for advanced vehicle technology. 'If you approach it scientifically, you can achieve that kind of vehicle dynamic DNA in vehicles that were formerly regarded as beyond the limits.'