Archive for June 2010
Our shuttle driver stopped at the outermost of Ford’s test tracks and radioed for clearance to cross from a flight traffic control tower overlooking the entire lot. Several Mustangs whizzed past us on the straightaway and we were given the go-ahead to continue to the heart of the infield where we arrived at a stylish modern building.
Inside, we ate lunch and resisted the cheesecake while one of Ford’s test drivers took the stage to tell us our next mission was to play with their 2011 lineup out on the high speed ring and handling track. There were rules of course, speed limits and the like, but after educating us on them, Ford guy raised his hand and asked us happily:
“Who’s gonna cheat?!”
I planned on it too. My team was first up on the handling track. We exited the building into near blinding sun and seventy degree weather. All around us, various Ford cars, trucks, crossovers, odd box trucks, new versions of cars I’m not supposed to talk about (Fiesta/Mustang, etc) where being tested on multiple tracks under the supervision of the control tower.
But the handling track was all ours, as were the 2011 model year vehicles Ford had parked single file for us to enjoy:
Mustang V6, Taurus SHO, Fusion Hybrid, Lincoln MKS, Escort, Fiesta, Flex, for some reason, a Transit Connect, and… another Mustang. Black. Could it be? I strolled up closer until the reflection of a polished emblem near the right front fender began to hurt my eyes.
Yes. Unless the gal from AutoTrader had slipped some LSD into my fruit medley, this menacing badge of honor definitely read 5.0. I was going to tear this thing up. 412hp. Six speed manual. Closed course. They were asking for it.
Mr. Pear hurried past me and plopped into the 5.0’s driver seat. I wound up in the Transit Connect; exciting in the sense that it’s got the goods to revolutionize the delivery vehicle segment, but on my first lap at Ford’s handling track I felt the urge to roll it just to bate my appetite for the upcoming thrills of the Mustang. Try as I might, the trustee van stayed upright even with the accelerator pinned to the floor for most of the course.
Back at the starting line another greedy press person beat me to the 5.0. I made my way to the blue V6 Mustang, only slightly crestfallen. For 2011 it makes 305hp, or roughly what last year’s Mustang with the 5.4L V8 used to make. Unexpectedly, one of Ford’s marketing ladies jumped into the passenger seat next to me. She was very sweet, and like most other guests on the tour that day, had been driving casually about the track, as if she were making a brisk trip to the grocery store.
But this was a Mustang, even though this particular model was outfitted with the fuel economy-boosting automatic transmission (31mpg highway). It showed. When I buried my foot into it coming out of the first turn… nothing happened. Marketing lady remained oblivious to my mischievous intentions. Then it downshifted.
RAAAAAHHHH!!! The V6 wound up and we took off into Ford’s handling track. Dips, banks, hairpins, slaloms, up hills, down hills, we hit them all as hard as possible, pushing the traction control to its limits. The Mustang loved it. Ford’s marketing lady did not. She held on to her door handle with both hands. When we arrived back at the starting point she exited quietly. A track hand informed me this particular course was really more of a second gear only sort of affair; our speed limit here for the day was 30mph, and it was only slightly flexible.
The 5.0 was driverless. I threw myself into the driver’s seat. Hello. A young blogger girl with a mow hawk appeared in the passenger seat. She explained she didn’t know how to drive a manual but still wanted to have some fun. A quick finger to the start button brought the V8 rumbling to life. Glorious. For the next lap this car was all mine… ours.
The traction control button caught my eye; tempting, but it was best to leave it on. This situation was already primed to end badly. We hit the first tight corner at mild speeds, keeping it in second. On the exit I buried the accelerator. There was no delay this time, no V6 wail. Just a roar and the giddy squeals of two young Internet people being thrown back in their seats. We hit a stretch of dips and slowed to the mid RPMs of second in preparation for a left hairpin. Halfway into it, I floored again.
Another roar. I had to work to keep the front end in front, but the traction control held the tires to a light chirping noise. Out of the hairpin the course jutted abruptly up and to the right in a sudden turning hill that easily could have made the car go air-born in third gear. I floored it again.
ROAR! At the crest of the happy ascent the accelerating Mustang lost most of its weight while trying to follow the track to the right. The right rear broke loose. We slid to the left, crossed up with our stomachs jumping up to our throats.
Through my window I could see the track hands less than a quarter mile away watching my door turn to face them atop the hill. Squealing tires. Tight guardrails. The draw ties on blogger girl’s sleeveless top hung in mid air below her chin. She was feeling all sorts of emotions.
I eased off the gas ever so slightly and the Mustang took the liberty of correcting my horribly timed throttle stomp in fractions of a second. The front end came right back around. It wasn’t the first time Ford’s traction control saved my ass. Impressive, but what was this story going to be worth without a proper burn out?
After the slalom, the track hit an 8th mile straightaway behind a large grassy hill where several landscapers were adding blue dye to a giant Ford logo. They were the only ones that would be able to see what was about to be concentrated here. The track hands would have no idea, except for the ungodly noise.
We came to a quick stop in the hidden area. The traction control came off. Blogger girl and I shared a quick s*** eating grin.
ROOOAAARR!!! SCRREEEEEEEEEEEECH!!! ROAR!! SCREEEECH!!! ROAR!!! CHIRP!
It was short and hard. I cried invisible tears. We reappeared from behind the hill in second gear, on our best behavior. They fed us snacks before shuttling us back to the airport, but all I wanted was more Mustang.
Now seriously woozy with jet lag, the virtual grand finale of the day was enough excitement to remain conscious. The shuttle dropped us in the parking lot of the building that housed Ford’s Virtual Test Track Experiment (VIRTTEX); a 2011 Mustang came into focus. It looked fairly similar to the other 2010 stangs on the lot.. Except for an emblem near the front fender:
Inside, our group passed another snack/refreshment table outside of the room where the presentation was set to begin. I grabbed a banana and gave a guy dressed in catering attire a nod. The presentation room was actually a control room, with a wall composed mostly of glass that looked out over a giant white sphere with the Ford logo on it.
The ball sat atop hydraulics at least fifteen feet above the ground, making it roughly one story high and at eye level with the control room on the second story where we stood. A bridge, like the ones that connect airport gates to airplanes extended out to the ball. Our guide showed us the various controls and video monitors that made the VIRTTEX dance before taking us into its belly.
Inside its curved walls were fitted with video screens that wrapped around a full-size SUV. From the truck’s interior, only images of the highway and its surrounding environment were visible, providing a 360-degree view of the imaginary world. From the pamphlet:
“Ford’s VIRTTEX – Virtual Test Track Experiment – simulator is very much like a flight simulator. The pod that includes the screens and the simulated vehicle is positioned atop hydraulics that move it in various directions to simulate motion. With VIRTTEX, Ford designers and engineers can create an endless variety of driving conditions and experiences to safely test real situations drivers may face.”
Back in the control room, Ford’s speaker explained VIRTTEX’s first mission was on driver distractions, which led to the development of Ford Sync. Currently, it’s being used for blind spot/braking support research and the like. From the pamphlet:
“One simulation includes a test of lane departure warnings; mimics driver distractions; and can test a collision avoidance system using a close encounter with the back of a truck.”
I missed out on this simulation. The jet lag was really kicking my ass when Ford guy informed us there was only time for three volunteers to ride the ball. By the time my hand shot up the first press lady was already jumping out of her seat towards the entry bridge down the hall. Only, Ford guy didn’t inform her that they would be attempting to make her smash into the back of a semi truck. Multiple views of her face from the control room monitors were available for our viewing pleasure.
Seated in the driver’s seat with a Ford Spokesperson riding shotgun, press lady had no idea of the impending doom that awaited her as the bridge retracted and dropped away from the ball to the floor below.
A Ford guy wearing a headset in front of the control panel gave press lady the go ahead over the radio system to accelerate up to highway speeds. The ball began to dip and bob lazily side to side like a snake being danced to sleep by a charmer. It was graceful, floating, as if it were coasting down a highway itself (See new videos). My jet lag was mesmerized by it.
Bah! Don’t look into its eyes!
I chugged the last of my coffee and instead focused on Ford’s speaker in the control room who was explaining that the lady press driver was now being instructed to read off random numbers that were appearing in a display on her dashboard near the main gauges, which would draw her attention off the road. As she was doing so, one of the semi-trucks she was driving behind was going to slam on its brakes.
“Two, six, four, eight, twelve, uh, twenty-fo- ahhh!”
The giant ball swung hard to the left back across our field of view while rotating down towards the floor as the press lady slammed on her brakes and drove through the back of the semi. From the pamphlet:
“Tests of various warning systems with VIRTTEX helped Ford identify the critical difference between an effective alert and an annoying one that drivers are more likely to shut off.”
I’m not sure if there was any vehicle-generated warning given to the press lady, but the expression on her face through the monitors at the point of impact was priceless.
With the terrifying climax of the giant ball behind us, our group made our way out to the shuttle with the promise of a trip to Ford’s test track and the better portion of their 2011 lineup still to come. It smelled like 5.0 Mustang, Taurus SHO, Fiesta, EcoBoost Flex… and… Ford Transit Connect?
The morning coffee was losing a slow battle to the jet lag. Luckily Ford was about to stick us in a series of virtual environments where you’d be more likely to puke than fall asleep. Team Blue arrived at the first of which shortly after being rocked hard by Powerwall, but this wasn’t a rerun of Guts, it was for cereal.
Our shuttle taxied us to another white building on Ford’s sprawling Dearborn estate. It was time to take on the Programmable Vehicle Model (PVM)… It’s more exciting than it sounds. From the pamphlet:
“Ford’s Programmable Vehicle Model (PVM) is a sophisticated computer-controlled, adjustable device that can instantly take on the dimensions of the full-size interior of any product. This allows the engineers to evaluate multiple design options against a number of criteria, including reach, blind spots, reflections, headroom and steering wheel angle, just to name a few.”
…It’s more exciting than it sounds.
Inside building number two, our group arrived inside a lab of sorts. Past the table of snacks and refreshments that we would find in nearly every room we visited that day was the frame and full interior of an F-150. A Ford person selected an endearingly plump member of the press, sat him in the truck’s driver’s seat and fitted a strange goggle apparatus to his head. His hands were strapped up with fingerless hobo gloves outfitted with little white balls on the knuckle sides, the kind used in movies to capture actors’ movements for animated effects.
Looking through the computer monitors, everything Mr. Pear saw through his headset was visible to us (Watch a press lady do the same in new videos). He swung his arm over the passenger seat to look out the truck’s rear window; we saw his animated hand grab the headrest, his line of sight expand through the rear window.
There were cars and trucks (all Fords) driving down the street in the 3-D city. We watched the screen as he toggled his head to follow the traffic as it approached the F-150’s bed, moved past the passenger side windows, out beyond the hood and into the outlying streets. From the pamphlet:
“Before the digital era, an interior design team would build a stationary three-dimensional physical ‘buck’ to evaluate items such as seating position, headroom and steering angle. This buck lacked the flexibility to accommodate multiple design iterations during the evolution of a vehicle program – meaning that each round of design changes required either modifications to the existing buck or the construction of a new one.”
One of Ford’s people illustrated this point with a Styrofoam molding of a dashboard faceplate for the F-150, explaining that if their team wanted to make changes to any part of the truck in the development phase, all they had to do was make such a molding and program it into the computer, versus actually building an entirely new piece for the “buck.”
Saves time, saves money, which is why Ford is pushing to go as virtual as possible with their operations (This was a main point of the whole tour).
When they strapped me into the 3-D attire, my first giddy instinct was to run my animated hands over the computer-generated dashboard. Visually, in the virtual environment, the knobs all had depth to them. Trippy enough, but when I reached out I could actually touch them, turn the heat up, down, reach to the cup holders, run my fingers around them, feel the texture of the upholstery, crank the steering wheel over, check my blind spot for traffic.
I puked into the cup holders.
The real $10 million puke machine was at our next stop. Inside Ford’s Virtual Test Track Experiment (VIRTTEX), when you whirl out of your lane to pass a semi-truck on the left, your car dips to the right. Slam on the brakes and the entire spherical environment lurches forward and down with 12feet of travel horizontally, 2 feet vertically…
We’re going to need bigger cup holders.
On a recent trip to Ford’s Virtual Reality Tour in Dearborn, Michigan, MotorSpaceNW was given access to areas within Ford’s headquarters kept more secret than the original Wonka factory, not to mention Ford’s historic test track where this guy got to race around like a crazy person in the new 2011 5.0 Mustang (412hp).
It all started at the historic Dearborn Inn, one of the endless historic places in Dearborn, a city that’s pretty much run by Ford. Fordneyland. After the mandatory schmoozing, cocktails and exchanging of business cards on the Inn’s patio during the first evening, I retreated to my room where I was ravaged by jet lag.
(Note to self: Order business cards)
The next morning we ate a pleasant breakfast of fruit and pastries and were divided into groups by color. My group was blue, but we quickly made peace with the Puerto Ricans. Shortly thereafter we were loaded onto shuttles. Team Blue made its first stop at Ford’s visualization lab, where we would soon come face to face with the mysterious “Powerwall”.
As our driver brought us into the parking lot, every stall was filled with a Ford. Mustang, Taurus, Focus, F-150, F-250, most were new or only several years old, but every so often there would be an old Taurus station wagon, Windstar van or something of the like.
I struggled to find an errant employee’s car that didn’t drive a blue oval, maybe even a Chevy, but could only manage to spot a three year-old Volvo, which still counts as a Ford. I asked one of the Ford marketing people if they’re required to drive the company brand.
“No,” she said, “but it’s strongly encouraged.”
Once inside the building we were greeted by a tour guide and instructed to follow her along a small lane painted in yellow on the floor that kept our left shoulder close to a wall. We arrived at a door and our group was divided again into sections of three. My section was guided into a dark room with high ceilings and a massive video screen.
A man greeted us and introduced two other men who were positioned behind a laptop docking station of sorts. We took a seat and were told this was not a room they wanted photographed. As the head guy began to speak the looming screen lit up in front of us. It was big enough to be a movie screen but had better definition than any high-def television I had ever seen.
At first I thought the initial vehicle we saw was a high-def PICTURE of a Lincoln crossover. Then the Ford guy on the controls began to rotate the view around the car. He zoomed out then slowly brought us all the way back up to the fender, close enough that we could see the flakes in the paint and the reflection the programmed light made off them.
The realism alone had my brains spilling out of my ears like pancake batter, but then we zoomed into the car, or rather through the fender. Ford guy did it slowly so as to provide a clear view as we passed by the interior engineering within the fender; through the wheel well, past the shock, front suspension, steering assembly, etc. before arriving in the cabin.
Once inside the view rotated with complete freedom of motion. We could the entire interior of the vehicle from any angle Ford guy pleased. To drive home the point, he zoomed in on the dashboard. It was like your face was being pressed up against it. You could see the tiny indentations that made up the texture of the leather wrap. It was like being on a weird amusement park ride Disneyland couldn’t afford. But this technology was of course a business tool. From the pamphlet:
“A design, whether it’s created in Europe, Asia Pacific or America, has to be researched around the world. Thanks to the Powerall, Ford doesn’t have to ship three-dimensional properties to every country where the vehicle may eventually be offered for sale, and market research can occur on multiple continents in a single day.”
Ford guy informed us that what were seeing was in fact the “small” version of the Powerwall; the full-size version was far larger and currently being used for a presentation. Back to the pamphlet:
“The Powerwall uses high-definition projection to enable review and refinement of full-scale computer-rendered vehicle designs prior to fabricating physical properties. …(It) features a 60-foot-wide wall that accommodates three 20-foot-wide projections simultaneously offering views of both the interior and exterior of vehicles.”
High-quality digital renderings replace physical models in the research phase, providing Ford more flexibility in research with less variability.”
For the big finale, Ford guy brought up a vehicle on the screen that I’m not supposed to talk about yet (It would be the first of several that day). The mystery vehicle began to drive around a fully rendered environment with realism that would make a PlayStation3 wet its pants.
Ford’s presentation team wrapped up the show and our tour guide reappeared to take us back to the shuttle. Little did I know I would soon be put into one of Ford’s virtual worlds. It’s an odd feeling to hold out your hand and see one that was created by a computer, especially when you reach the fingers out to grab an F-250’s dashboard and can actual feel the buttons, hold the steering wheel and look over your shoulder to check the blind spot for traffic.
Seattle’s Greenwood Car Show packs close to one thousand beautiful vehicles, live music and food vendors along a mile stretch of Greenwood Avenue already bustling with restaurants, bars, shops and pedestrians. I attended the popular event to cover the cars, but found myself more absorbed, quite literally, by the crowd.
A lady friend and I, we’ll call her Claire, figured we'd make a lovely summer outing out of it and brought along a friend’s dog. Dogs love cars.
It was sunny. We were happy, young and foolish. Walking up towards the show we caught our first glimpse of the nightmare soon to come. The sleepy Greenwood streets were choked on either side with spectators’ parked cars. Most were Subaru wagons with opinionated bumper stickers.
In the distance the faint roar of a crowd rose above the low-slung buildings, only people weren’t yelling or cheering. The noise we heard was being created by the sheer number of people flowing through the narrow corridor of Greenwood Avenue from 67th all the way up to 90th.
As we approached the humid current of humanity sucked us onto the Ave due north.
People, everywhere, walking, weaving, talking, laughing, loud music, barbeque, babies, dogs, gray facial hair, beer bellies, madness.
And.. Mustangs! Oh, thank Iacocca! They were everywhere: 289’s, GT 350’s, Boss 302’s, shined to perfection on either side of the street.
Vintage cars continued down the Ave as far as the eye could see… which was about fifteen feet. Desperately I drew Spumoni to my leg and threw my right arm around Claire’s petit waist, pulling her just as close.
Both ladies had gone cold to the touch. It was critical I get them to a car I could recite factoids about until the shock of the crowd wore off.
The warm green glow of a 1948 CJ2A Willy’s Jeep caught the corner of my eye, less than ten yards away. Fifteen minutes later we were standing next to it, temporarily safe from the riptide of people.
One of my shoes was gone. Claire’s makeup was running, either from perspiration or from tears, possibly a combination.
I forced a reassuring smile and began to tell her how my family used to have a red Jeep of the same year.
“Really?” She asked, sincerely interested.
“Yeah,” I said, “”This was only the second year Jeep made a civilian model. You can tell that this one isn’t military because of the headlights-”
A man with a gray mustache sitting in a lawn chair behind the Jeep was puking up his last six beers. His friend sat next to him, patting him on the back, trying to coax the remaining three beers out.
“If you wrap this Jeep in burlap it floats,” I said, trying to keep the attention on the vehicle, “It isn’t very stable but you could still forge a calm-”
The old man was shaking his head in disgust between purges. Claire was having trouble focusing on the Jeep as Spumoni began to sniff at the slow trickle of Raineer and peanuts creeping towards us. I pulled the ladies tight again and we dove back into the current of people.
In the scrum I shouted into Claire’s ear to ask if she thought an approaching line of 1960’s Jaguars were sexy. She liked a purple one. We paddled hard right and escaped into the spectator area next to the plum colored Jag.
“This year range of Jaguar is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful car designs ever,” I offered. “Those curves-”
“Oh! What kind of dog is that?!” A woman with a leashed poodle interrupted.
Several terrible minutes later we managed to lose her in the crowd. Only now every person with a dog traveling in the opposite direction was stopping or chasing up on us from behind, expecting our dogs to make friends while we made small talk, about dogs.
Dogs love cars.
I spotted a charity raffle and swung us towards it. Next to the ticket sales table was the prize: A 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air, cherry red. I pulled five dollars from my pocket, got in line and-
“Oh! What kind of dog is that? Did you get him from the pound?” A woman asked excitedly. Her husband had grey facial stubble, the classic car kind.
“My cousin used to have a dog that looked like that. The three of you would look great in this car! Is there any Pit Bull in her? Does she want some water?”
We swung back into the portion of the crowd due south and let it flush us out the bottom of the show into the mercy of the surrounding Greenwood area. Spumoni was cross-eyed. Claire was dehydrated, either from perspiration or tears, possibly a combination.
My roommate, Steve has a nasty attitude problem, and a 1996 Buick Regal. Recently he informed me over Hot Pockets that my 1991 Dodge Dynasty runs, “kinda rough.” We’re going to settle this Beater Diaries style, with an interview in our basement lit only by a black light and the glow of a laptop, followed by an ultra low-grade chase video.
PART 1: The Interview
Car: 1996 Buick Regal
B: State your name for the record.
S: Steve *****
B: So, you think you’re pretty hot stuff, huh?
S: Uh, yeah… duh…
B: You are not hot stuff. Why do you drive a 1996 Buick Regal?
S: It’s a gangster ride.
B: If your Buick is so cool, why do you ride the bus to work? Honestly.
S: Honestly, traffic’s a b****, I like cruising.
B: I hate you.
B: I have this scripted.
S: I see that.
B: What’s the coolest thing you’ve done in your Buick?
S: Can I make something up?
S: One time I had six people slammed in the back seat that only fits 2&1/2, because I wanted the front seat to myself.
B: That’s boring. What’s your problem with me parking the Dynasty in front of our house?
S: It smells bad, and it looks like it smells bad. Like bologna.
B: Do you think you could pull your Buick into the back yard? This isn’t a used car lot.
S: Then where are we gonna stick your Honda?
B: The readers don’t know about that yet, I haven’t introduced my Honda.
S: Oh, let me rephrase that….
S: What was the question?
B: Let’s move on. When you think of velvet interior, what color first pops into your head?
B: The correct answer is purple, like a pimp’s suite, which is the interior of my Dynasty. And what color is you interior?
S: Powder blue.
B: The correct answer is beige, like an old woman’s granny panties. Are you afraid of what a black light might reveal on your Buick’s rear bench?
B: I would be with the Dynasty. I would be terrified; I get all sorts of ass back there. No one wants to see the stains on your granny panties.