Dudder: In Harmony

Columns From: 2/1/2007 Automotive Design & Production, , Contributing Editor

Getting a car to feel right takes more than bettering the competitions' numbers. It takes a coordinated effort to create a coordinated vehicle.

This job lets me sample a number of vehicles under a variety of circumstances, including the day-to-day grind. And one thing that becomes startlingly apparent in a surprisingly short time is how awkward and uncoordinated American vehicles can be under even the most benign circumstances. It's not as though they are falling over themselves-though that does occasionally happen-but that there is a general feel that one person worked on the steering, another on the brakes, a third on the throttle, and a whole group of unrelated people worked on the switchgear, etc. As a result, the satisfaction level can be quite low because-though all or most of the metrics may be better than the competitors' on the spreadsheets-there is a decided lack of congruence between the elements. This lack of harmony means the sounds, feels, and visuals don't work together in a manner pleasing to the human soul and body. Thus, the subliminal message to the driver and passengers is "appliance" and not "precision machine."

I'll admit that last bit sounds somewhat Zen-like, but the idea is valid. Especially when you consider that the human body has harmonics and resonances it finds pleasing, others it finds disconcerting, and still more that fall under a number of descriptors ranging from "great" to "awful." Take, for example, the case of one major OEM that discovered youngsters riding in the third row seats of its minivans were prone to nausea and vomiting while those in the other rows felt no similar peristaltic urges. Only when a group of female engineers began discussing the problem one member of the group had with this waveform did they realize each had experienced it with their own children. When they looked further, they discovered that the addition of a tuned-mass damper to the rear of the structure eliminated the problem. Unfortunately, this case didn't trigger any further inquiry into this area of bio-medical research, including a look into what harmonics and resonances work with the body instead of against it.

Nevertheless, this episode reminds me of the work begun at Lincoln under the guidance of Al Kammerer and Dr. Mike Renucci while they were in charge of product development and engineering, respectively, at Lincoln Mercury during one of its many revivals. They created a series of charts and graphs that compared the then-current Lincoln offerings with their direct competition-an exercise that proved there was no such thing as a "Lincoln feel"-and pulled from this and other data a range within which future Lincolns would operate. This last item was the most important, and though skeptical at the time, a long drive in the revised 2003 Town Car and LS showed that these two were on to something. They had distilled the tagline "American Luxury"-Lincoln's descriptor at the time-and turned it into a drivable reality. More surprisingly, it really was perceptibly different than what you'd expect from a European or Japanese luxury car-or a Ford. Unfortunately, it wasn't long before Lincoln's direction was changed yet again, and Renucci's and Kammerer's work was relegated to the trash pile.

Granted, Ford isn't the only domestic that has lost the plot over the years, but the work it began on the Lincolns is a starting point for its recovery, as well as an example for all the other automakers that want to stick around as the competition heats up. As the number of models and makers increase, it will be those automakers whose products stand for something that will create for themselves a customer base that identifies with those ideals and images. Some OEMs will shrewdly use their multiple divisions to entice new buyers while giving long-term owners a place to move while remaining a part of the family. Simply put, Alfred Sloan's idea of a car for every purse and purpose must be reinterpreted to create stepping stones that are more than a demographic shift for the buyer, and relate to the internal script each person carries that defines for them their self image. Badge engineering alone isn't going to do the trick. It will take different sheetmetal, body styles, interior layouts and materials, powertrains, and chassis bits to create the differentiation essential to building vehicles that-when combined with a distinctive brand feel-satisfy this "internal harmonic."