The Model T For a New Era

The Model T For a New Era

Powered by a supercharged hydrogen internal combustion engine, equipped with a hybrid electric transmission, enhanced by a host of advanced safety systems and pioneering green materials and processes, Ford Motor Co. has debuted the Model U, a concept car it has dubbed “the Model T of the 21st century.” Dr. Gerhard Schmidt, vice president of research and advanced engineering, describes the Model U as Ford’s model for change -- exploring the benefits a vehicle provides to its users, the way it is manufactured, and how it impacts the world. By Katie Sosnowchik

Despite his acclaimed vision, it’s doubtful that Henry Ford could ever have imagined the Model U concept car. He may be credited with “putting the world on wheels,” but he probably never dreamed that someday those wheels could be fueled by hydrogen rather than gasoline; that people would talk to their cars, and cars could answer back; that vehicles could navigate drivers to their destination; or that cameras could enable autos to see around the vehicles in front of them.

Yet, it was Ford’s Model T and the way it revolutionized transportation in the last century that provided the inspiration for the Model U.

“When Henry Ford built the Model T, it was affordable, offered the most advanced manufacturing and was built with the most advanced materials,” says Schmidt. “In a similar, but entirely contemporary way, Model U starts a new cycle. Emissions, safety and fuel economy, also green materials and processes, are all key questions facing the entire industry. We believe the Model U addresses them all.”

“The Model U is very different from most futuristic concept vehicles,” says J Mays, vice president of design. “It tries to address the challenges of the future and proposes exciting, realistic solutions that exceed current industry standards.” In his introduction of the Model U on January 5 at the North American Industry Auto Show in Detroit, MI, Mays described the car as “urban, contemporary transit for evolving lifestyles.”

The idea for the Model U was born out of Ford Motor Co.’s desire to showcase future mobility ideas within a single concept car for its centennial celebration. (The company was formally incorporated in June 1903 and is now the world’s second largest automaker). It is the brainchild of a partnership struck among Ford’’s Research and Advanced Engineering; Ford’s Brand Imaging Group (an internal design think-tank); Bill McDonough and Dr. Michael Braungart (McDonough is the architect of the new Rouge Center and co-founder, with Braungart, of the product design firm MBDC); BP; and a host of technology suppliers.

“When we were charged with creating the concept vehicle for the company’s centennial, we tried to capture the spirit of the Model T,” says Laurens van den Acker, chief designer of the Model U. “The Model T changed people’s lives; it spurred a kind of revolution. So this wasn’t just a styling exercise, it was a holistic process. That’s why it was so important to have engineering and design work together on its development.”

Ford Motor Co.’s current chairman and CEO, William C. Ford, Jr., emphasizes that the beginning of this company’s second century will be driven by product development such as the Model U, as well as 15 other new product introductions Ford launched at the event. Speaking to the NAIAS audience, he noted, “We don’t want to live in the past, we want to learn from it. Great products will drive our success. Fresh thinking and new technologies are as much about celebrating the start of the next 100 years as they are about honoring the last 100.”

Immediately following the NAIAS press conference where the Model U was unveiled, Katie Sosnowchik had the chance to sit down with Dr. Schmidt and find out more about the development process that went into this concept car and explore what the applications of its technologies will mean for future Ford vehicles in particular, and mobility in general.

Katie Sosnowchik: How was the vision for the Model U formed?

Gerhard Schmidt:
Good ideas often have many fathers. It started with the idea to deliver, for the 100th anniversary, a safety car. Now, this was about the time I joined the company. And being aware of so many exciting technologies being developed in our research lab, and exciting design ideas coming out of our advanced design community -- we decided to create a technology bundle that answers many difficult questions for future mobility: clean, environmentally friendly, safe and enjoyable for our customers. It was the right time to design a project that covers everything.

At first we wanted to deliver a car that did not emit carbon dioxide emissions because of global warming; we wanted to create a car whose materials, as much as possible, wouldn’t end up in a landfill; we wanted to have a product that delivers a driving experience at least or even better than today’s products. The Model U combines it all -- attracting the customer and delivering the best for the customer and the whole world at the same time with the same product -- this is the equation we tried to solve. And I think we are pretty close.

KS: The Model U is powered by a hydrogen internal combustion engine (ice). Does this signal Ford’s commitment to hydrogen development rather than, say, fuel cell development?

We don’t know exactly what the final endgame will be. There are still some attributes of the fuel cell that are not as favorable as they should be. But I am not pessimistic. We have 100 years of experience with internal combustion engines, and we only have a few years’ experience with fuel cells. Never give up too early. We are dedicated to making the fuel cell a success. But there are high probabilities that we will not have a high production volume of fuel cell cars in 10 years. We have to develop bridging technologies that will pave the way for fuel cells.

KS: Will elements of the Model U appear within the broader form product line?

I hesitate a little because there are such a huge number of innovations. From the safety technologies to the conversation speech recognition -- all of these things are pretty close to the start of production. These things will happen and will be introduced step by step -- I have to guess, but I would say maybe within five years you will see all these safety-related technologies available.

With the materials, maybe it will take a little longer. I think the biggest opportunity is to start with smaller volume production cars. We have to decide how these technologies fit into our cycle plan and wrap this up with limited volume at the beginning so that we can gain more experience in the manufacturing process.

But this is all realistic. The overall design ideas of the car are convincing. I think we will see in the future some elements of reconfigurable design -- giving the customer a chance to upgrade cars step by step according to his needs. A customer doesn’t have to buy a new car if he has new requirements.

If you were to ask me, “When is the earliest time for a hydrogen combustion engine?,” my answer would depend on some additional partners from the outside, because hydrogen is not available today in a huge quantity. It is similar to when we started with catalytic converters: there were no lead-free fuels, so there were no catalytic converters -- and as long as there were no cars with catalytic converters, there was no lead-free fuel. But this was a pretty easy problem to solve -- it was just the question of lead in or lead out.

This situation is a little more difficult because we have to create hydrogen in huge quantities and we have to build up the infrastructure. It doesn’t make sense to have a “gas” station with hydrogen in every small town in North America. You have to start with some mega-cities and areas where you can build up infrastructure at the same time you offer products able to burn hydrogen. This is a task which needs support from energy suppliers; it needs a lot of support from the Department of Energy, resource boards and the Environmental Protection Agency because many questions are linked to technology and to rules and regulations, safety standards for refueling, etc. Therefore, it needs a cooperative approach from many partners.

KS: Do you see Europe solving the problems associated with hydrogen infrastructure before the U.S.?

Sometimes Europe has an advantage because of the overall density of the population and because traveling distances are shorter. To build up an infrastructure in a smaller area, such as the mega-city area in northern Germany where the distances are shorter -- would be easier than in North America with its vast open spaces. My assumption is that maybe it should start first with fleet applications or in mega-city areas such as in California where there are very sensitive air quality standards, or on the East Coast.

KS: What aspect of the Model U's design is most worthy?

Independent of the design language of the car -- so in regard to innovation and technologies -- I think the whole powertrain with the hybrid and with the supercharged hydrogen internal combustion engine -- this whole package is a key element of the product.

Overall, it’s a nice bundle of new technologies -- it’s safe and environmentally friendly -- with a surprising flexibility for the customer. I think we found the right mixture of customer delight, future orientation and environmentally friendly materials from both the manufacturer’s side and the user’s side.

KS: Will one technology lead the way?

I think the navigation technology and the safety features are pretty mature. I think they will be in production, piece by piece, in maybe the next five years. The materials, I would assume more of a time frame between five to 10 years. The hydrogen ICE -- also between five to 10 years, as well as the modular transmission. This is just the first generation of hybrids, and we will continue to offer to our customers hybrid-electric vehicles in other models, and we will develop future hybrid-electric technologies. This is an advanced new idea.

KS: So the powertrain package is applicable to other vehicles?

I think this is a design that is not just fitting to the Model U. In fact, it may even be easier with vehicles like SUVs and pick-ups because with the Model U, there are space limitations with packaging the engine super-charger, the hybrid transmission and the fuel tanks for hydrogen. It is a compliment to Laurens van den Acker and his team of designers that they were able to create such an overall package. This should be an easier problem to solve with larger vehicles because there are less size and weight restrictions.

The whole package as we have seen it is an advanced research design -- it’s a masterpiece of art, it is not a product for model year 2004. We have to offer innovations that show the way to the future. We not only have to dedicate ourselves to what will happen next autumn, we have to look at what has to happen in 2008 . . . 2012 . . . 2015. Could we build this car in 100 units per year? Yes -- I don’t think that’s a big problem, but it would be very expensive and wouldn’t make sense. But to have a similar product that has many elements of the Model U in 2010 or 2015 -- that is realistic.

KS: Does Ford intend to someday offer a Model U car - one that builds on what we saw today?

It is called a model for change because it has many elements that are necessary for the future of our business -- not necessarily for a particular auto company or for individual mobility -- but for protecting our natural resources without restricting personal freedom. It needs innovative thoughts and personal creativity to make it happen.

KS: Was this collaboration among the different divisions within Ford a unique one?

The way we did it was not really typical; it was an excellent initiative between J’s team and my team. Sometimes you need a challenge. Working together is not really new; but working in this close of a partnership among different disciplines -- safety, communications, technology, internal combustion engine, hybrid, materials -- was a key success factor. It created an environment of close partnerships and acceptance of new ideas from different viewpoints. This interdisciplinary approach within one company creates an atmosphere of dialogue allowing new, unconventional ideas to be implemented.

KS: Are you encouraged by environmental progress at other automakers?

I am still convinced that we have to follow different routes. I am supporting increasing the number of products on the hybrid-electric vehicle side. The technologies are available and applicable to other products. It’s now a question of how fast we can ramp up.

I also advocate competition between different solutions. For example: diesel is a technology that offers 20 to 30% better fuel economy and at least 20% better fuel emissions. I think we should give this technology a chance. We shouldn’t have a dogmatic, “this is the only way” philosophy. I can’t predict what will be the preferred solution in 10 or 20 years. It’s more of an evolution. But let diesel engines compete in the North American market with hybrid-electric vehicles. Let’s offer the customer both technologies. The result will be that costs will come down for both technologies. Competition favors our customers and favors improved efficiencies, lower emissions and improvements in air quality. Diesel was not a topic for the Model U because it is more about short-term solutions instead of a long-term vision.

KS: You came to Ford about two years ago from BMW. What’s your perspective on Ford’s ability to push these initiatives forward?

We heard today about Ford’s 100 years -- only a few companies have such a long-lasting tradition. This delivers huge leverage; if you improve only one%, your influence is much more significant than say 50% with a smaller company. Maybe the smaller company is more exciting, but the impact on the world, on the customer, is not. The size of the company and its ability to influence is very important. This is a global business; you won’t find many companies that have such an international approach. In my division we have people from more than 56 nationalities represented. So we are not local, we are global in thinking. This is an outstanding challenge for an engineer with some experience in another part of the world, from another company and another side of the business.

KS: What’s next?

The next important step is to find a business case for the product. If you look at bundling all this technology into one car, it’s a nice scientific and design task, but not necessarily a good business case for a company. We now have to develop many of the components here for high-volume production.

We are excited about the Model U and about the internal processes and also about the feedback coming in, so we have decided we want to make another car. We have to refine and improve what we have done the last 24 months with the Model U and create new ideas. And we will partner again with the design side to solve critical problems. This is fun and it also educates the organization -- it makes the organization more mature and able to deliver better products in the long-term.

This article first appeared in [email protected] magazine in February 2003.