DETROIT - Textron Automotive Co. is testing in-car scents that could be designed to match a driver's mood.
Taking its initiative from a trend that has seen people channel scents into homes and offices, Textron is looking at ways to do the same to vehicles. The scents would disguise the vapors from plastics, leather and fabric that many new-car owners dislike. Beyond that, custom fragrances could be used for the ultimate car accessory.
The effort is part of a broader Textron campaign to transfer the look, feel and sound of nonautomotive consumer products and put them into vehicle interiors. If consumers think the sound of a Nikon camera switch is classy, the thinking goes, why not mimic it on switches inside a vehicle?
Textron, of Troy, Michigan, USA, is not alone in paying attention to smell. Ford Motor Co. asks customers in focus groups if they have noticed any unpleasant odors. Ford also has an electronic device, called the e Nose 4000, that measures interior odor during a vehicle's research and development stage. It was first used on the Ford Focus.
Textron, meanwhile, faces a range of challenges in its effort. The major question is: Do consumers really want a scented car?
According to Jeffrey Rose, Textron's vice president of technology, the idea of focusing on smell came up in a brainstorming meeting last autumn. After the meeting, Rose, 40, and a team of engineers set out to find a way to refine their sense of smell.
Rose began sear-ching around for advice from experts in a business where a good sense of smell is vital - the wine industry. He was looking at the online Wine Enthusiast catalog last November and saw a package for improving one's sense of smell. Rose ordered the $474.95 package with his corporate credit card.
Three days later, a scent training manual, flash cards and 54 miniature vials of scents, ranging from oak to tobacco to leather, arrived at Textron's technology center in Auburn Hills, Michigan.
The package pushed Rose and his staff of six engineers further into their research.
'We started playing around with the idea of adding additives to items and resins to simulate these natural smells,' Rose said. 'So we developed a series of materials that could smell like leather or alternate scents.'
Textron, the 18th-largest supplier of original-equipment parts to the USA, according to Automotive News Europe figures, is a specialist in instrument panels and interior trim. The company is experimenting with the concept of embedding scents in the plastic skin on instrument panels and the trim on pillars to mask unpleasant interior odors. These odors are strongest when vehicles are new, or when they are parked in hot environments.
Textron is still in its early stages of research into what Rose calls 'scenting.' The supplier is working to determine how long a disguising fragrance will last, and how that compares with the time that the offensive odors stick around.
Rose predicts that if Textron receives enough orders, molding scents into resins would add less than 5 percent to the cost of a component such as a door panel.
One of the challenges Rose and his team face is being able to add a fragrance to a vehicle without also adding vapors that could adhere to the windows. Rose said scents typically carry vapors, but the vapors have more room to dissipate in a building than in a vehicle.
In addition to disguising unpleasant odors, Textron engineers also plan to use their improved sense of smell to create interior materials that have no odor, regardless of the environmental conditions. Rose said Textron is discussing this possibility with a major European automaker.
Textron also is developing a system that would allow automakers or consumers to program vehicles with different scents that would be dispersed through the heating and cooling system. Rose said North American automakers are considering custom scents as way to differentiate brands, and as a personalization option for customers.
For example, 'Dad's' edition of the Ford Explorer could smell like oak, while his son's vehicle could smell like incense.
Since there is no way to measure smell, Textron's challenge will be to find scents that are pleasing to most people, and at just the right potency.
'Training yourself is like learning a new language,' Rose said.
In the next six months, Textron will present automakers with an odorless concept vehicle with a fragrance system, and scented plastic vehicle components. But Rose does not expect to see custom car scents in production vehicles until about 2005. The limiting factor, he said, will not be the availability of technology, but in consumer demand.
'If scenting becomes a huge thing in people's homes, they may want it in cars,' said Rose, who will follow nonautomotive scenting trends closely.
Textron also is working on patenting a concept that would allow drivers to match their favorite scents with their radio station preferences. For example, the vehicle would remember that Driver A wants soothing ocean scents to surround her while she listens to jazz on the drive to work, but wants to smell bubble gum while she listens to Britney Spears on her way to the gym.