Auto Tech

Ford pilots lights to dupe humans' body temps, extend electric range

HVAC systems suck up a lot of electricity, so what if you just "felt" warmer because of lighting?

Warm? Cold? Have some ambient lighting.

Here's the thing with electric cars: they're not the absolute best option for drivers that experience extreme temperatures. I own a Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid, and I see my estimated range drop considerably when it's cold and I need the heat on. So, yes, it's a real problem.

Automakers know the heating and air conditioning systems suck up a lot of electricity from an electric car's battery, so they're looking at a pretty simple way to extend a battery's range -- and it doesn't involve major engineering overhauls. No, instead, it tries to trick humans into thinking they're warmer or cooled off with lighting.

Over in Germany, Ford's been experimenting with such a system on a Transit prototype model. It's an electric version of the commercial van that employs ambient lighting. Research has shown that simply dousing humans with red lights will make them feel warmer, while blue lights have the opposite affect -- they feel colder.

Ford said in its own research published Monday that blue ambient lights returned a 3.3% drop in power usage for the cooling system (passengers felt cooler), and red lights ran parallel with a 2.5% decrease in heating because passengers felt warmer. The results came after Ford simulated a winter day with a temperature of 32 degrees Fahrenheit and a summer day with a temperature of 86 degrees.

Those are small figures, but anything helps. Additional research from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory showed electric cars can lose up to half of their estimated range while using the climate system. Suddenly, the Ford Mustang Mach-E's estimated target range is around 150 usable miles, rather than 300 miles. Asking drivers to get over the heat or the cold isn't really a great business case, either.

However, Ford's looking at more than just lights. This Transit prototype van also includes solar panels that power a small 12-volt battery used for heated seats and the ambient lighting system. That leaves more power for the main battery to focus on the driving range. Further, the sliding door in the van only opens half way to keep warm air inside when it's cold out, and vice versa. The HVAC system automatically shuts off when the door's open, too. There's also additional insulation to keep the temperature more constant.

Just don't be surprised when more warm colors are present in ambient lighting on a cold day, and cool colors on a hot day, in future Ford vehicles.

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