A Model T for the IT generation

Ford believes a new generation of drivers will value their computer more than their car, and has used IT as the starting point...

Ford believes a new generation of drivers will value their computer more than their car, and has used IT as the starting point for its latest design. Ben Whitworth reports

If Ford's design supremo J Mays could have his way, the future of motoring would have arrived yesterday.

When he unveiled his new "24.7" design at the Detroit Motor Show at the beginning of this year, the concept car - centred on information and aimed squarely at the Internet generation - was misunderstood at best and derided at worst.

Stung by the criticism, Mays immediately lashed out with the rebuke that the 24.7 was designed "through the eyes of our new customers, not 45-year-old white males".

So why did the 24.7 generate such an onslaught of vitriol? Launched at a show where trucks, sport-utes (sporty utility vehicles) and extravagant saloons rule, the boxy and austere 24.7 looked completely out of place.

In a city where the influence of Harley Earl - the man who has helped shape the way American cars have looked since the late 1920s - is still felt, the dead-pan, flat-faced 24.7 could not have clashed more with its glitzy show-stand neighbours if it tried.

With no chrome, no curves, and, according to most onlookers, no charisma, the 24.7's looks and philosophy received a cool reception.

Mays knows, as does Ford chief Jac Nasser, that the automotive industry will undergo a profound change in this century, as will our attitude towards cars. Some of that transformation will be prompted by the familiar tighter emissions and safety regulations, the ever-upward spiralling cost of fuel and the continuing clamp-down on speeding. But Mays believes that an entire generation of new car buyers will emerge that believe their computer is more important than their vehicle. The 24.7 is aimed at them.

Laurens van den Acker, the 34-year-old stylist who led the 24.7 design team, claims: "When we did our research we found that 75% of kids said the thing they could least do without is their computerÉ this means there is a big group of people for whom their favourite product is not a car." This insight was the springboard that launched the 24.7 concept.

There is nothing unusual about the 24.7's underpinnings - it is based on the floorplan of the Ford Focus stretched by 50mm and is powered by a 2.0-litre Zetec engine, driving the front wheels through a semi-automatic gearbox. This is not a concept car that majors on the driving experience. The revolution, Mays insists, is in the 24.7's looks.

The machined lines and nomenclature graphics of the 24.7 are designed both to be functional and appealing to a generation that doesn't relate to cars. Its "cab-upward" looks, with the passenger cab relatively high and at the front of the car, have the kind of simplistic clarity of a child's drawing - geometric, bold and uncluttered. Combined with a high-roof, long-wheelbase approach, the 24.7's exterior lines maximise interior space to liberate vast levels of passenger head and leg room.

The 24.7's 90¡ front and rear LED lights sit behind opaque plastic shields. Replacing conventional brake, indicator and headlamps, they light up instantly and are designed to last for the lifetime of the vehicle.

Conventional wing mirrors are replaced by "pea-shooter" video cameras that transmit images to an internally-mounted television screen. Another design quirk is the lack of a B-pillar at the back of the front door, the wide opening front and suicide rear doors, all of which combine to create a huge entry and egress space.

If the exterior styling lacks the eye-friendly curves and slashes of Ford's New Edge styling direction - another Mays theme - then the interior makes a modern statement that few other high-tech cars can match.

The centrepiece is a unique central instrument panel that uses computer-generated, back-projected images to replace actual dials and switches. The entire dashboard, from colours, light intensity, ventilation, audio controls and instrument priority, can be customised to suit individual drivers, the settings then being stored in an onboard computer.

"If people are working in front of computer screens and changing their preferences all the time, there will come a point when somebody will want that in their cars," explains van den Acker.

These settings are controlled by sophisticated voice-activated technology, developed by Visteon, Ford's own key component supplier. Already used by Jaguar - another Ford-owned marque - the voice identification system reacts to a driver's vocal prompts and covers a wide range of onboard motoring applications as well as information-related functions such as e-mail, Internet access and mobile phones.

All the controls, apart from the switchgear for the indicators, lights and gear selection, exist in cyberspace. The driver can choose which instruments - speedometer, oil pressure or tachometer - or what information - satellite navigation, Internet or e-mail - is projected onto the high-definition screen.

To ensure that the driver's attention remains focused on the road while the car is on the move, much of the driver's requested information is aurally rather than visually relayed.

There is even a third video camera mounted within the rear-view mirror that can film the driver and passengers for hands-free video conferencing and audio-visual telephone conversations.

Although Mays now admits that launching the 24.7 at Detroit may have been a mistake, he is unrepentant about the philosophy behind his concept. "Young kids today don't dream about cars the way we did. We're not interested in retro stuff, kids can see what's coming instantly on their computer. We're designing for the next 30 years and thinking seriously about car design without forgetting to be involved in mainstream design; we wanted to challenge all the conventional concepts of what a car should be."

So what effect will Mays' dream have on the cars we buy tomorrow and the day after?

Although much of the sophisticated info-data exchange between car and driver still lies beyond the realms of conventional car production, the technology is already seeping its way into our cars and lives.

Satellite navigation and traffic information services are common features on a wide range of cars. Although voice activation for secondary functions such as ventilation, telephones and audio levels are currently limited to prestige saloons, Mays predicts that it will not be long before they become standard fixtures in mainstream family cars.

Van den Acker sums it up best. "There will always be emotive cars like Mustangs and JaguarsÉ but I believe there is a whole new group of consumers that view their cars very differently. They want to stay connected."

Ben Whitworth is senior road tester for Autocar magazine

Mobile technologies

  • Ford's 24.7 has LED lights for headlamps, indicators and brake lamps instead of traditional halogen units

  • There is a back-projected information screen instead of a dashboard, which means drivers can choose what dials they look at, where they want them and in what format, as opposed to normal physical dials that are fixed into the dashboard

  • The car features voice activation for some motoring functions. It uses Visteon technology for the voice-activated, reconfigurable projected image display and almost all information interchange between driver and car so that the driver's eyes can stay on the road and not on the dashboard

  • Video cameras replace traditional wing mirrors. These have already been seen on many concept cars and as the technology advances and creates smaller and cheaper cameras, so their popularity is growing

  • Onboard speakers and microphones are built into the car's interior - in the headrest and roof lining - so no cables are needed when, for example, four people are having a video conference in the car

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