Pushing a vehicle to the limit takes on a new meaning in the new 2010 Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan hybrids, thanks to Ford's SmartGauge with EcoGuide - an innovative new instrument cluster that provides real-time information to help drivers maximum fuel efficiency.
"SmartGauge with EcoGuide gives the customer real-world feedback to make the most of their hybrids," said Gil Portalatin, Hybrid Applications Manager. "Unique to Ford and Mercury hybrid sedans, this instrument cluster acts as a good 'coach,' engaging drivers real-time to help them achieve maximum fuel economy."
Ford collaborated with IDEO and Smart Design, two world leaders in helping consumers connect with technology, to develop the instrument cluster. Job One was properly integrating the driver with the cluster's science and technology.
"The main question hybrid drivers had was, 'How do I know I'm getting the most out of my hybrid?' " said Jeff Greenberg, Ford senior technical leader. "We needed to create a system that better communicates with drivers and gives them the tools to maximize fuel efficiency. That's what SmartGauge with EcoGuide does."
The driver is immediately engaged by the SmartGauge displays, on either side of the center-mounted analog speedometer, with a special greeting that combines illumination and graphics.
EcoGuide then uses a multi-layered approach to coach the driver to maximum fuel efficiency. A tutorial mode built into the display that helps the driver learn about the instrument cluster and the hybrid in a whimsical way that does not overpower.
For instance, drivers can choose one of four data screens to choose the information level displayed during their drives. They are:
Inform: Fuel level and battery charge status
Enlighten: Adds electric vehicle mode indicator and tachometer
Engage: Adds engine output power and battery output power
Empower: Adds power to wheels, engine pull-up threshold and accessory power consumption
All levels can show instant fuel economy, fuel economy history, odometer, engine coolant temperature, what gear the car is in and trip data (trip fuel economy, time-elapsed fuel economy and miles to empty). The engine coolant temperature indicator turns green when engine conditions are warm enough to allow engine pull-down.
At the core of the instrument cluster's design was an understanding that the Hybrid Electric Vehicle (HEV) experience evolves and deepens over time and the technology needed to reflect that.
The four levels of information can be customized to fit each driver's needs or situation. If cruising on the highway, for instance, only basic information may be desired. Once a driver moves off the highway into a city, additional information to optimize fuel economy may be desired and can be easily accessed.
Long-term fuel efficiency can be displayed in two ways - either as a traditional chart or using an innovative display that shows "growing leaves and vines" on the right side of the cluster. The more efficient a customer is, the more lush and beautiful the leaves and vines, creating a visual reward for the driver's efforts.
Additionally, the real-time system feedback allows drivers to assess or modify their driving habits to achieve maximum fuel economy. A shutdown screen reviews important information from the latest trip, including fuel economy performance and comparative data from previous days.
Extensive customer research was completed to ensure the instrument cluster is as driver-friendly as possible. Prototype testing was done in Ford's Virtual Text Track Experiment (VIRTTEX) simulator, the industry's largest driver distraction laboratory operated by an automaker. Test drivers were able to safely interact with the new technology as engineers gathered data and helped refine SmartGauge, aiding drivers in making informed decisions without being distracting or overwhelming.
"When you're driving, you have a second or so to look at your display," Greenberg said. "A dense display isn't going to work. SmartGauge with EcoGuide is designed to minimize distraction caused by multiple displays. We did a lot of work to eliminate extraneous movement and create a smooth, fluid display."
The instantaneous fuel economy gauge, for example, can be shown or hidden at each of the EcoGuide levels to suit the needs of individual drivers. "We did a lot of research and modified our designs along the way to make SmartGauge with EcoGuide unobtrusive, using subtle cues to relay information," Greenberg said.
The brainstorming sessions with the IDEO team proved invaluable. "We received more than 100 ideas about information to display - that was our input to our studies with VIRTTEX," he added. "In VIRTTEX, for example, we learned that you can't overlay multiple levels of information. One of our design goals then became to geographically separate the information so it can be better understood while driving."