Ford Focuses on the Future of Mobility & Manufacturing

As transportation demands change, Ford looks to alternative forms of vehicles—like bicycles. What’s more, it is using material ranging from coconut fibers to tomato seeds to produce parts. And sometimes making parts isn’t done with machining but printing. Really fast printing.

The auto industry is going to have to adjust its way of doing business as more people, especially young people, choose to live and work in large cities and don’t depend upon a personal-use automobile as their sole form of transportation. This seems to be the prognostication, which has given rise to phrases like “multimodal mobility.” And to a whole lot of work by OEMs and suppliers alike.

Like Ford.

Ford is experimenting with concepts designed to deal with the changing transportation landscape under its “Ford Smart Mobility” plan, and has identified two areas of strategic importance: flexible vehicle use and ownership, and, yes, multimodal urban travel solutions. The latter is a set of solutions that includes electric bicycles designed and engineered by Ford for use by commuters and professionals who must travel into crowded city centers that may have driving bans or restrictions.

There is the MoDe:Flex, Ford’s third e-bike (after the MoDe:Me and MoDe:Pro that were introduced in March), that uses a common center frame assembly containing the battery and motor that can be mated to front and rear assemblies designed for road, mountain or city riding. It can fold to fit inside any Ford vehicle (excluding the GT, of course) where it can be charged. Like the other two bikes in the MoDe series, the Flex connects with the user’s smartphone using the MoDe:Link app, and can download information on weather, congestion, parking costs, time to destination, traffic and public transportation. It also includes eyes-free navigation, a locator pin to tell where you parked the bike or your car, and health and fitness information. These features only work with an authorized smartphone, which sits on the frame downtube and charges as necessary

The eyes-free navigation system gives the rider haptic prompts through the handlebars to alert them when they need to turn right or left. In addition, the ends of the handlebars light up to make drivers aware of the rider’s intentions. An extension to the MoDe:Link app allows riders to look at their smartwatch instead of down at their docked phone, and includes a “no sweat” mode that increases pedal assist based on the rider’s heart rate so they can, Ford claims, arrive at their destination without breaking a sweat. 

The MoDe:Pro can recharge within 1.5 hours when docked to a recharging rack in a Transit Connect van, and this recharging rate should be replicated with the other e-bikes using an authorized charging system. Unlike the MoDe:Flex, it is aimed at those working in city centers closed to vehicle traffic who need to carry either goods for delivery or tools to a work site. Currently, the MoDe:Pro weighs 15 to 20 kg (33 to 44 lb.), but Ford engineers insist this would be reduced should the e-bike ever reach production. (Yes, these are concept vehicles.)

To learn how best to use bicycles in urban settings, Ford’s Research Innovation Center in Palo Alto, California, has developed a sensor kit for bicycles that gathers data through the use of open-source hardware and software, and is connected via Bluetooth to the rider’s smartphone. According to Ford, bicycle trips of all types are increasing, and its sensor package can be used to gather information on the way cyclists use their bikes to meet their current urban transportation needs. By combining this information with that downloaded from vehicles, it could be used to analyze road quality, identify traffic patterns, or be used by city planners to create bike lanes in high need areas. Combining this information from multiple bicycles on a real-time basis would create a vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) information infrastructure providing current traffic and weather conditions, suggested routes, and more.

Of course, says Jim Buczkowski, director, Electrical and Electronic Systems Research and Advance Engineering at Ford, V2V would mimic that planned for cars and take place over the 802.11 WiFi architecture. This would help keep costs in check and ensure that the architecture stays current. “Its effectiveness is dependent on many vehicles being connected,” he says, “as this information isn’t worth much without lots of useful information and data points.” He conceded that it “may take a while” for this technology to reach the tipping point where it begins to provide useful data. First, consumers have little incentive to pay extra for a technology that is not immediately useful. Second, city and state governments haven’t got the money necessary to connect infra-structure to the V2V architecture in order to expand its reach. 

Less tech driven and closer to implementation is Ford’s Peer-2-Peer car sharing pilot program for 14,000 select customers in six U.S. cities and 12,000 in London, England. (The six U.S. cities are Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco, California; Portland, Oregon; and Washington D.C.) Ford Credit is offering these customers the chance to sign up to rent their Ford Credit-financed vehicles to prescreened drivers for short-term use as a way to offset monthly vehicle costs. U.S. customers use Getaround, a web-based rideshare company, while Londoners use the easyCar Club. The pilot program runs through November 2015.

On the more practical side of things, Ford and Carbon 3D are working on using the latter’s Continuous Liquid Interface Production (CLIP) technology to 3D print prototype parts 25 to 100 times faster than traditional 3D printing methods. Carbon 3D drove the point home by showing the printing times for a spherical fullerene—a buckyball—using various 3D printing methods.

Printing method    Elapsed time
CLIP                       6.5 minutes
Polyjet                    3 hours
SLS                        3.5 hours
SLA                       11.5 hours

Carbon 3D claims CLIP can use a broad range of polymeric materials, and prints parts that are like injection-molded pieces since they are smooth on the outside, solid on the inside, and have consistent and predictable mechanical properties.

The technology is based on the fact that, while UV light triggers polymerization, oxygen inhibits it. What makes the CLIP process different is that its vat of UV-curable resin has a base similar to an extended-wear contact lens; it’s transparent to light and oxygen permeable. Controlling the influx of oxygen through the window creates a thin layer of uncured resin between the window and the object. Light is projected from underneath, and the build platform lifts continuously at a pre-determined speed to grow the object. Ford uses the technology to, among other things, produce elastomeric grommets for the Ford Focus Electric and bumper dampers for the Transit Connect. However, a Carbon 3D spokesman said it is possible to build Class A surface parts from engineering materials in sizes far beyond those used by Ford thus far. He even suggested it was possible to print parts with discontinuous carbon fibers that have most of the modulus of continuous carbon fiber and more than half of its tensile strength. Carbon 3D is in the process of productionizing its printing system.

On the other side of the materials coin, Debbie Mielewski, Technical Leader for Ford Materials Research, is working on integrating more natural materials into vehicles. This includes grinding and compounding wheat straw with petroleum-based plastic to create a material 30% lighter than a similar mix using glass fibers that “saves 20,000 lb. of petroleum and 30,000 lb. of CO2.” Its first use was in storage bins on the Ford Flex. Similarly, coconut hair is used in Focus trunk mats and the cellulose-fiber plastic console of the Lincoln MKX. “We’re looking at using shredded money, which has a high-quality fiber, to make things like coin trays,” says Mielewski. She added, “The latex from Russian dandelion roots is used to replace some of the 150 lb. of rubber used in each vehicle, and polyactide (PLA) plastic in carpet, upholstery and interior trim.” 

In addition, Ford is repurposing the stems and seeds from the two million tons of tomatoes Heinz uses to make ketchup to make wiring brackets and storage bins, and rice hulls from Arkansas to make electrical harness brackets for the F-150. “Our goal,” she says, “is to look at what plant sources are available in each market where we build vehicles so that we are sourcing these items locally instead of shipping them globally.”