In December, Ford announced its new Fusion hybrid, which was rated an impressive 41 mpg city and 36 mpg highway. But then something interesting happened. In one of the earliest reviews, Pulitzer Prize-winning auto critic Dan Neil reported getting 52 mpg. Other journalists reported similar numbers, averaging at least nine miles more per gallon. A review today at Auto Insane reported an astounding 59 mpg. The reason? The innovative new instrument panel that's a collaboration between Smart Design and IDEO. The Ford SmartGauge uses better interface design to influence driver behavior by showing when and how they're getting the best energy efficiency. Thanks to good design, the Fusion is actually training its driver to increase performance.
"People buy hybrids but they don't get the performance they expected and they don't know why," says Dan Formosa, founder of Smart Design (and star of the new documentary Objectified). "But the car's computer actually knows a lot of stuff that can't be shown on a traditional panel," he says. "It knows what the driver is doing." Using a new LCD screen that enables full-color graphics and animation, Smart Design was able to visualize that information to delightful effect for the new interfaces that will be found on the 2010 Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan.
In traditional automaker hierarchy, the interface designers are the "lowest guys on the totem pole," says Smart Design designer Michael Jones. "Just showing this information and why the driver should care about it is revolutionary." The Ford hybrid team, knowing their progressive consumers would demand as much from their autos as they do from their iPhones—and perhaps attempting to put on a new face for Detroit by collaborating with outside forces—brought on IDEO and Smart Design to reconfigure drivers' relationships with their dashboard starting in 2006.
IDEO conducted ethnography research on hybrid owners, and introduced the idea of "coaching" drivers by showing them when the car was performing at its peak. Smart Design ran with the idea, creating what Formosa calls a strategy for a "car and driver ecosystem" with constant feedback from the car to the driver that focused on four concepts: Inform, Enlighten, Engage, and Empower. When the car is at its most efficient, leaves and vines begin to unfurl out from the right side of the panel, named the Eco-Guide. They can also track their efficiency over time with data crunched into various graphs and charts. "We really played into people's instincts," knowing that better efficiency actually made drivers happier, says Formosa. "People are naturally motivated by reward."
In addition to the eco-savvy features, the interface itself is a clear and quite beautiful departure from the clunky dials of the past. Formosa's Ph.D was focused on instrument panel design, especially studying what he calls "look-away times," those stolen glances we use to check our speed (more than one look) or change the radio station (up to six looks)—each of which have a massive effect on performance and potential driver error. The use of contrasting colors for fuel and battery, clearer graphics that are more literal than a simple needle and dial, and the ability to change the settings to display different information each reduce the need to glance away, making for a safer, smoother ride. "This is a baby step," says Formosa, who hopes this kind of collaborative thinking can be seen as evidence of true American innovation, at a time when Detroit needs it the most.