Bright Lights, Big Quality

If you can't let the sunshine in, then duplicating sunshine in the laboratory is a good way to improve your vehicle quality. At least that is the contention of Ford Motor Company. With a blinding 6,000 watts of electrical energy and 270 additional spotlights and floodlights, Ford engineers have developed a laboratory that simulates the various phases of the earth's revolution around the sun with the flip of a switch.

The Visual Performance Evaluation Lab (VPEL) was created to replicate sunlight conditions from dawn to dusk. Why go to all this trouble? Because a car's interior can look different depending on sun conditions. The VPEL gives technicians a controlled environment in which to test vehicle interior instruments, controls and other components to verify that they are lit properly and legible when they are on the road, no matter the sun's angle or intensity.

"The VPEL allows us to see how various interior components would work under different sunload conditions, meaning clear sky, overcast sky , dusk and dawn," said Mahendra Dassanayake, staff technical specialist, who was primarily responsible for developing this innovative lighting facility. "Under different conditions, the way the vehicle interior presents to the customer changes and the level of comfort changes. We want to create a very user-friendly situation inside the vehicle to minimize distractions."

The VPEL, a new addition to Ford's Product Design Center, has already proven to be of invaluable to the team of people who design illuminated car interior components like switches, clusters, climate controls, navigations systems, radios and rear entertainment systems. When the lab is in use, a car or component is placed in the middle of what looks like a gigantic circular space. At the flip of a switch, four huge 1,500-watt lights mounted onto a steel arm power up. One end of the arm connects to the ceiling. The other end sits on wheels on the floor. By physically pushing the arm to specific points around the circle's edge and adjusting the spotlights and floodlights in the ceiling, the studio can simulate light conditions at every time of day from sunrise to sunset. Additional adjustments are made to simulate and study the effects of weather conditions, for instance a staff member might smoke a pipe to simulate fog.

Prior to the development of the VPEL, the lighting team did the bulk of its testing by taking cars out on the road under different sky conditions to try and evaluate interior components and identify potential problems like washouts. But that kind of testing was as variable as the weather. According to Dassanayake and Mark Larry, display technology engineer in the Electrical and Electronics Systems Engineering Interior Harmony activity, the VPEL will afford designers and technicians the unique opportunity to test components at a much earlier stage of development.

"Designers can bring in clay models to do up-front assessments in high ambient light conditions or sun wash-out conditions," said Larry. "They can bring in components in their early stages. If we find that we're having issues with components that are already in production, we can bring them in a take a look at them at the component level. We can also do full vehicle level testing."

Based in Cleveland, Driving Today Contributing Editor Luigi Fraschini writes on a wide variety of auto-related issues.