Fitting Cars to a Growing Population

Americans are getting bigger. Actually, that's putting the nicest face on the issue.  Americans are really getting fatter.  In fact, nearly one in three Americans meets the American Medical Association's classification of "obese."  And that has implications for vehicle designers, who must fit cars to an increasingly diverse population of drivers and passengers.
 
Consider these facts: in 1962, a woman weighing 199 pounds ranked in the 95th percentile for weight and had an average hip width of 17.1 inches. By 2000, women in the 95th percentile weighed 27 pounds more (226 pounds) and their hip width grew 2.6 inches. During that same period, 95th-percentile females grew an inch taller. A man in 1962 weighing 217 pounds ranked in the 95th percentile for weight and had an average hip width of 15.9 inches. By 2000, men in the 95th percentile were 27 pounds heavier (244 pounds) and their hip width grew 1.3 inches. During that same period, 95th-percentile males grew 1.2 inches taller.

In an effort to deal with this wider spread, Ford Motor Company has developed an industry-first set of nine human computer-aided design (CAD) virtual mannequins aimed at representing the population's more extreme body dimensions. The company is using the CAD models to ensure its vehicles meet customer wants, such as unprecedented amounts of storage space in front-seat consoles, while accommodating the greatest range of body types.

"Our customer population is changing," said Lucy K. White, a Ford ergonomics researcher. "But with virtual mannequins, and not cyber stick figures, we're able to properly represent our physically diverse customer base -- from petite to plus-size -- and better size up vehicle interiors to fit their needs."

The statistics and the bases for the nine virtual models are from the U.S. government.  Every decade, starting in the 1960s, government researchers gather basic data about its citizens -- including height, weight and a few other body dimensions. In 2000, the Civilian American and European Surface Anthropometry Resource (CAESAR), a U.S. Air Force project supported by Ford, clothing, and other transportation companies, measured nearly 5,000 Americans and Europeans and scanned them from head to toe, both sitting and standing.

Ford used the data to create human CAD models, or virtual mannequins, some of which represent male and female models with a high body mass index (a measurement that takes into account a person's age and weight), wide hips and shoulders, long legs, short legs, long arms, short arms and several combinations. These mannequins can be positioned in and around vehicles in various postures to examine their interaction with the environment.
 
Gary Rupp, a Ford ergonomics research engineer, says the study of human body types is nothing new, but the more recent ability to manipulate such data three-dimensionally has opened up a new world for designers and engineers. For instance, Ford ergonomists used the virtual mannequins to evaluate the cabin of the all-new 2007 Ford Edge, assessing its ability to comfortably accommodate a variety of body shapes and sizes.

"Because of increased obesity more of today's motorists are grappling with tighter fits around steering wheels, armrests and in seats," Rupp said. "Our goal is to leverage this technology to make our vehicles more comfortable and more ergonomically appealing for the full gamut of customers, including people of size."

It seems easier to change the dimensions of our cars than the dimensions of our neighbors.

Long a student of the automobile industry and the human condition, Driving Today Contributing Editor writes from his home in Villeperce, France.

Is Time on Our Side?

Since we recently went through the change to Daylight Savings Time, you undoubtedly know the trauma it causes.  Not only are we forced to give up a precious hour of sleep in the middle of a well-earned weekend, but we are also forced to engage in that most difficult of processes -- changing the time on the clocks in our cars.  While, to their credit, some manufacturers have made this a rather simple chore, others still require us to jump through the mental equivalent of flaming hoops just to get our clocks to "spring forward" an hour.

Proving that these days there is a study on almost anything, Lincoln has commissioned a study about car clocks and other consumer interfaces with technology.  The new study shows that while consumers may be tech savvy at home, many still need to refer to the owner's manual to figure out how to set the clock in their vehicle.

"Intuitive technology can make the difference between frustration behind the wheel, and a truly enjoyable driving experience," said Lincoln Brand Manager Tom Grill. "The technologies featured in the new Lincoln Zephyr are designed with luxury and simplicity in mind -- like the advanced DVD-based navigation system, keyless entry keypad and classic analog clock."
 
In the recent survey of luxury vehicle owners conducted by Harris Interactive for Lincoln, more than half (57 percent) of those polled indicated they like to know "just enough" about specific technologies to make them work while 35 percent said they considered themselves to be technophiles. Only eight percent said they don't care how things work, as long as they work.

Complication obviously still reigns in many car cockpits.  Some 62 percent of respondents say they rely on the owner's manual to figure out how to reset the clock when it is part of their vehicle's audio system. When the vehicle's clock is separate from the radio, 48 percent admit to reaching for the manual. Demonstrating that some stereotypes have at least some basis in fact, far more women (69 percent) than men (57 percent) say they reach for the owner's manual to figure out the intricacies of clock-setting, overall.  Responding to this, Lincoln has gone to an analog clock on its Lincoln Zephyr that can be set by simply pressing the plus or minus key located just under the clock.

Luxury car owners seem to be take-charge types when it comes to time. Most luxury vehicle owners polled said they're the ones in the household to change the alarm clocks (93 percent), wall clocks (92 percent), and clocks on home appliances (94 percent). Males (93 percent) are more likely than females (79 percent) to change the clock on home electronics themselves. And not surprisingly, those who are 50 or older are more likely to change their home clocks before going to bed.
 
The country seems to be nearly equally split between the pro-active and the reactive when it comes to the time change.  Some 55 percent say they reset their alarm clocks/clock radios the night before Daylight Saving Time, while 43 percent say they do it the day of the time change. And then there are those few who march to a completely different beat.  Slightly less than two percent say they don't bother changing the time at all on their wall clocks, alarm clocks and home appliances at all.

Interestingly, most of that two percent also drink Corona.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Luigi Fraschini admits to trying to set his car clocks without the benefit of the manual, costing him several hours each year.

Distractions or Attractions?

Sick of schlock jocks on your car radio? Want to figure out where your pals are while you're on the road phone-free?  Not quite sure where you are but you'd really like to know?   TomTom, a worldwide in-car navigation provider, has the answers to these questions and more. The question they beg is this: Are these additions to the info and entertainment we can get in our vehicles a positive development that will enrich our lives?  Or will these add to the distractions that contribute to so many accidents these days?

The answers will be determined by the uses to which drivers put these new content and service offerings and, just as much, on when they access them.  And, frankly, it is still too early in the game to come to any conclusions on that score.  But it is not too soon to determine that the variety of stuff offered to us in what it calls its TomTom PLUS portfolio is intriguing.

So what's included?  Audiobooks, for one. TomTom has teamed up with Audible Inc., the largest supplier of digital spoken books to offer a vast catalogue of titles.  This allows users to simply download their favorite book, magazine or podcast through their PC or MAC onto their device. Spoken books from popular authors such as Dan Brown, Stephen King and James Patterson and over 23,000 titles from genres like fiction, humor, mystery, non-fiction, politics, self-development and language are available on a per-use basis, and they're supplemented by audio versions of newspapers, events and performances, how-to programs, language courses, travel information and education programs.
 
TomTom Buddies allows drivers to invite other TomTom users to become their authorized "buddies," and once they're on the buddy list each member of the group can see where their friends and family are and navigate to their locations. Just the thing to have if you think your best friend is going out with your wife.  Additionally, users can send each other text messages that are read aloud -- stuff like "Leave my wife alone if you know what's good for you!" For those livin' on the cheatin' side of town, the service also provides secure privacy options so that users can hide their location and add or delete "buddies" as required.

Not quite sure where you are, lot less where you're going?  The TomTom Quick GPS Fix continually retrieves ultra-precise details from satellites orbiting the earth, which means TomTom drivers will be able to find their current position faster than ever when using the device. As part of the update to TomTom Traffic, users will now also receive up-to-date road condition alerts via a wireless Internet data connection (GPRS). Users will be kept up-to-date on any road conditions such as construction or ice on the road that may affect journeys. Coupled with the current TomTom Traffic service that includes real-time traffic alerts and the option to plan journeys to avoid traffic hotspots, this service provides complete updates on weather and traffic conditions.

TomTom Weather now features detailed real-time weather information for any city on the user's selected map. It provides hourly updates on cloud cover, rain and snow, temperature, wind, lightning warnings and visibility so that users can now travel in confidence while knowing about inclement weather that may affect their journey.

Finally, TomTom users traveling to Europe have access to a comprehensive database of European "safety camera" sites (read speed traps,) which have been checked and verified by field surveyors. Completely integrated into the new TomTom GO range, TomTom Safety Cameras encourage safe driving within posted European speed limits, while ensuring that users can report changes in locations of speed cameras and mobile speed traps.

So whether you want to learn Esperanto as you drive, check up on a friend's location, avoid a thunderstorm or evade the long arm of the law, TomTom has you covered.  You can decide whether that's a good thing.

Boston-bred Tom Ripley now covers the automobile industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.

Replacing that Electronic Key

Multi-function electronic car keys seem like a good idea.  Many of the newest electronic keys can stay in your pocket or purse while you push a button to start your vehicle.  Others have a computer chip that is recognized by the car, making theft via a bogus key much more difficult.  But what happens when these keys are lost or stolen?  Because of their nature, these keys can't simply be cut by a locksmith or hardware store.  And getting them through a dealer can be difficult.

Now a new law being proposed in California will give motorists 24-hour access to the information needed to replace lost or stolen high-tech electronic vehicle keys.  Sponsored by the Automobile Club of Southern California and introduced by Assembly Member Mark Ridley-Thomas, the bill will have its first committee hearing after the legislature begins its new session in January. The legislation will require the establishment of a safe, secure method for motorists to obtain electronic code information necessary to reproduce many of today's high-tech vehicle keys, and it could be the basis for "model legislation" nationwide.

Currently, many vehicle owners seeking replacement keys are forced to use a facility of the manufacturer's choosing, not the motorist's, leading to less competition and potentially higher costs of repair. Even worse, these facilities may not be open on nights or weekends, causing a delay in obtaining a replacement. Sometimes, consumers have to wait days to obtain a replacement key, and that can be frustrating.

Electronic keys recently became standard equipment on most automobiles sold in Europe after studies revealed that they caused a 90 percent drop in auto theft. U.S. car manufacturers are quickly and increasingly adopting the technology as well, particularly for mid-range and luxury vehicles.

"The Auto Club believes that when a motorist buys a vehicle, he or she also buys everything needed to operate it, including all the information necessary to make a replacement key," said Alice Bisno, the Auto Club's vice president for legislative affairs. "Every auto manufacturer should provide vehicle owners with a secure way to obtain this information whenever owners need to obtain a replacement key.
 
"Greater vehicle security is an asset for consumers, but security improvement should not come at the expense of placing motorists in an unsafe situation or forcing them to pay unnecessarily high prices to obtain replacement keys," Bisno said.

The Auto Club recommends that consumers protect themselves against these potentially high costs by making sure they get a replacement key for their vehicle before they need it. To have a replacement key made, call the toll-free number listed in your car owner's manual or ask your dealer to give you any special codes required to make a key replacement. Even after you've made a replacement key, keep the code information in a safe but accessible place.  One tip: Don't put the information in your glove compartment.  You might not be able to unlock your car to get it when you need it.

Off Road and Off the Charts

If it were a sci-fi movie, it might be titled "It Came from the Garage."  But the Grand Challenge being staged by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) isn't just a show-biz trick.  It is a deadly serious competition designed to elicit the best ideas in unmanned vehicles, the kind of vehicles that can be lifesavers in warfare.

On October 8 the world will be watching eagerly as 20 robotic, fully autonomous vehicles attempt to navigate 175 miles of rugged Southwest desert terrain.  The technological innovation unveiled in the race could some day save the lives of American soldiers on the battlefield, and the spoils that go to the victor in this special challenge include a $2 million-dollar prize.

Described as a cross between television's "Survivor" and a computer programming and gaming contest, the Grand Challenge is the second organized by DoD.  Quite literally a race, the prize money goes to the team whose vehicle completes the demanding course the fastest.  The overall time limit is 10 hours, which seems lengthy until you realize that the robotic vehicles will have to perform a number of complex tasks along the way.

As you might guess, many of the teams come from top engineering minds representing universities like Carnegie Mellon, Cal Tech and Cornell, but this year's competition will also feature a "Monster Garage"-style group of self-described "California garage guys." Team leader Chris "CJ" Pedersen and the AI Motorvators have dubbed their entry "Dawn of the Independents" or more simply, "IT."  This group of decidedly non-academic types (by their own admission) look at themselves as David to the Goliath of the big university think-tank entries. 

"I was looking at the DARPA Web site for small business programs when I came upon the challenge," said Pedersen. "I knew right away that we could build a vehicle to enter the race.  I started calling people, trying to get them involved. The hardest task was lifting the confusion of how to approach the complicated sets of problems involved. The learning curve is very steep."

The winning vehicle must function day and night in harsh conditions too dangerous for human drivers, tirelessly performing a multitude of tasks, all without human assistance.  Among the jobs that could be performed by the robotic vehicles are supplying military forces under fire in hostile areas and locating and defusing ordnance in the field.

DARPA is the central research and development agency in the Department of Defense, and it has pioneered major technological breakthroughs such as the Internet, stealth aircraft, smart bombs and the pilotless Predator aircraft. While the DoD initiative is designed to elicit prototypes for military vehicles, the same technology could be used on a civilian level to allow blind and disabled persons to enjoy greater mobility.

Thus far, DARPA has narrowed the field of competing teams down to 40 semifinalists who will participate in a week-long national qualification event. From September 27 through October 6 vehicles will compete on an obstacle course on the California Speedway in Fontana, California. Twenty vehicles will then be chosen to run in the final race. The showcase event is open to the public and is expected to garner widespread media attention.

Long a fan of innovative weaponry, Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about the auto industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.