DETROIT--Ford Motor engineers Mark Anderson and Peter Kalergis like large vehicles.
Anderson, 48, is 6 feet tall and weighs 350 pounds. Kalergis, 42, is 6 feet 3 inches tall and 348 pounds.
"I look for head clearance," Kalergis says. If the roofline is too low, "it feels too claustrophobic."
With U.S. drivers taller and wider than ever, Ford's challenge is to ensure comfort, safety, and mobility for large drivers while still accommodating smaller drivers. Obesity in the United States has increased dramatically in the past two decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Nine states report obesity rates of over 30 percent.
As Ford tries to design vehicle interiors for people of all sizes, the automaker is turning to virtual-reality technology.
"We try to satisfy everyone," says Elizabeth Baron, Ford's virtual reality and advanced visualization technical specialist. "No matter what type of vehicle it is, we're going to study how various people fit in it."
Sitting on more
In 2008, Ford built its virtual technology test lab in suburban Detroit. Researchers learned quickly that many U.S. drivers needed more headroom, not just because they were taller but because they weighed more, Baron says.
"The relationship between girth and seated eye height is that eye height is going up because people are sitting on more," Baron says.
For vehicle interior design tests in the past, subjects wore so-called fat suits and used real vehicles.
Now subjects wear virtual reality goggles and gloves and sit in mock vehicles.
Researchers at the lab start by measuring the interior dimensions of a vehicle for testing. A steel mock vehicle interior is developed, complete with seats and other features. A Styrofoam "top hat" that includes pillars and a roof is placed over the steel portion.
Subjects of various weights and ranging from 3 feet 8 inches to 7 feet tall don the goggles and gloves and enter the mock vehicle, where they see and interact with a virtual vehicle interior and virtual driving conditions. They grip knobs, handles, and other features. They check the seat and pedal positions, and the ease of reaching the center console.
"The shifter location and cupholders are the toughest areas [in which] to please everyone," says Ford's Rich Jakacki, vehicle test coordinator.
While driving, the test subjects see a road with pedestrians and traffic. They report blind spots, difficulty with steering or braking, and other spatial-related problems.
"Maybe there's something about it that is really annoying or not good," Baron says. "If we just move something or switch something, it would make it so much better."
Engineers Anderson and Kalergis are often test subjects. During a recent session, Kalergis complained that the A-pillar created a blind spot because of the seat configuration. His size forced his line of vision too far left. Kalergis told testers, "My seating position should be pushed more toward the center of the car."
Another test subject, who is 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighs 400 pounds, entered a mock full-sized pickup built to a competitor's dimensions, Baron recalls. But he couldn't get out of the virtual vehicle.
"We had to expand the mock back to an F-150 size so he could get out," she says. Ford engineers now know they must maintain the F-150's dimensions to accommodate tall and wide drivers.
Anderson says the process has resulted in greater ease for him in small cars. "I've sat in the new Focus, and I'm comfortable," he says. "A few years ago I wouldn't have been."