Here's something that might surprise you: if a car company announces a concept car or even a production model tomorrow, it's a fair bet that the vehicle has been in production for at least two calendar years before it rolls out onto the floor of some international motor show. And yet, car companies manage to produce incredibly forward-thinking, futuristic designs that continue to knock our socks off. One such beauty is the gorgeous Everest Concept: Ford's idea of how the future of four-wheel drives and SUVs bearing the blue oval should look. Birthing a concept is no easy task. Here's Ford scaled its Everest.
A concept car isn't just four wheels and a body. It's meant to represent something.
Every concept car ever made has been plucked from the imaginations of 12-year old car lovers all over the world to be the perfect poster material. Sleek lines, futuristic designs, interesting shapes and bold new colours. All these things make up the modern concept car, along with a special unnamed X-factor that can't be defined until you clap eyes with the beauty.
Eventually, a concept car will have its amazing accents and bold looks whittled down into something more consumer friendly, but some of the original bold identity will remain. Before the focus groups have their way with the world's best looking concepts, teams of designers gather to build the car of the future.
When it came to Everest, designers from Ford Australia realised that they'd have an uphill battle on their hands building the SUV of the future.
Futuristic, high-concept sports cars often scare away ordinary customers. If a customer can't envision the car in their driveway with an identity that doesn't scare the crap out of them, it's a fair bet they won't buy the car when it (eventually) comes to market.
To make sure that consumers feel on board with the so-called "identity" of a car, Ford first goes to the people to find out what they want in a futuritic concept.
Ford does market and customer research to identify the need for a product type, be it an SUV, a ute or a sedan. The aim is to identify customer requirements and inform the brief. Designers look at everything from how customers want the car to feel, right down to how they want the face of the car to look. Do they want it to be sporty, fierce, happy, etc? It’s a granular process.
Designers then take that information and draw on other gorgeous concept designs to pull together a theme board. “When we approach a vehicle, we have to think ahead of time. We want to look at these designs and spark an idea,” says Max Tran, a senior designer with Ford. Hiking boots. Fancy tents, technical watches, speakers. All of these form a mind map of design porn for the sketchers to take a look at.
As far as the research for the Everest concept was concerned, customers said they wanted a car that was “tough yet sophisticated, had a commanding road presence and a car that communicates capability”. Capability basically means “go anywhere and do anything,” according to Max.
In a bid to save cash developing specific cars for every market, Ford these days develops globally accepted platforms and uses styling accents like paint, colour and varying materials to tailor models to different countries, and all of this is exposed in the concept design phase of the build with vision boards.
Imagine a 4K screen as big as your bedroom wall filled with images of luggage, fishing rods, tents, bags, golf clubs, Blackberrys, shoes and Hugo Boss perfume. That’s the rough vision board for the brand identity of the Everest according to Ford designers: tough, but luxurious.
After more customer consultations, that vision board becomes more focussed, and images pertaining to the specific identity of a car will emerge. The Everest is a tough yet stylish hiking boot, a high-tech GPS Garmin hiking watch, and other products laced with lashings of orange, reds, blacks, subtle finishes and mesh textures.
Designers then begin on the complex task of splicing the DNA of the Everest concept into its different market segments. So-called “sports urban” customers want glossy, higher contrast materials, bright silvers, brushed textures to make it look more technical, with added carbon fibre finishes and accented blues. Luxury buyers go for browns, blacks, leathers, carbon fibres and woods. A fine tie that might be seen on a Christian Grey type or a model pulled straight from the pages of Vogue forms the centrepiece of the Luxury vision board.
All of these are pretty dark so far, so a lighter concept is selected for markets like China and hotter climates. “It feels much cooler sitting in a light environment when it’s hot outside,” according to Ford’s colour and materials designer for Asia Pacific, Minh Huynh. The shade of white Ford has selected makes the Everest concept reminiscent of something you’d see in Modern Architecture or Country Style magazine.
Design trend research is then projected onto the outside of the car. This is when some crystal ball-gazing comes in. Fashion, architecture and technology are analysed from where they’ve come from and where they’re going. “We want these colours to last for a long time”. It’s about projecting the future and “projecting the Ford DNA”, Minh adds.
China prefers warm earthy tones, South America likes subdued blues and greys, India prefers reds.
Multiple versions of a concept car are sketched and thrown back up onto the concept design wall, and then the arguing begins. Designers narrow their direction by deciding what works and what doesn’t, and refining their concept designs from there. Once they approve, the idea goes back to the customer research crews to see if it’s really what customers had in mind.
To make sure that everything looks the way they want it to in the real world, the concept then has to be prototyped by engineers.
A five-axis mill machine – the likes of which will fuel your nightmares if you think machines are the demise of man -- cuts down a piece of Styrofoam into the exact shape of the car taken from 3D CAD models. After that, Ford engineers use an additive machine to layer vehicular modelling clay over the Styrofoam.
To get the finer accents and details just right, Ford engineers then use 3D printers to create high-quality polymer pieces of the car. Wing mirrors, logos, scoops and accents are all 3D printed to get the exact design right on the clay model. Designers carve the shape and accents they want into the 3D printed polymer, before chemically cleaning it, painting it and sticking it into the clay model. Every concept needs to look as good as it possibly can before teams around the world can sign off on the future of the SUV.
Once everyone’s happy with the clay that’s been built, they fake it until they make it: a material called Dynock that replicates vehicle paint coats the vehicle. Realism in concept design is an absolute must, so Ford wants to go the extra mile to make the cars look as good as they can. Putting a full-scale clay and Dynock model next to a real car in the car park would see you struggle to pick the real one from the fake one.
Even when the car looks and feels the part, it still can't make its way onto the production line before it goes through rigorous product testing.
To save cash, Ford uses its FiVE Lab in Melbourne and Dearborn to visualise the car and put it through its digital paces before a single bolt is threaded into a nut. The car goes through different crash simulations, metal deformation tests and aerodynamic tests are among the thousands of simulations Ford runs out of its Virtual Engineering centres around the world.
Over 900 design days, Ford does 26,000 simulation tests, breaking a vehicle down into 190,000 different geometric CAD items to be tested. These pieces are designed to a surface accuracy of 5 microns, and each part is tessellated by Ford's new design simulation software into 10,000 triangles for maximum detail.
Engineers are given access to Ford's High Performance Computing cloud in Dearborn, which consists of an insane 26,000 CPUs and 95,000GB of memory available. Using this amazing power, 500 full vehicle aerodynamic simulations are completed over 604,000 hours of CPU time. Thanks to such detailed digital analysis, real world tests can be sped up. Following the insane digital wind tunnel testing, Ford only needed to put the Everest into a real wind tunnel for 40 hours to validate its results.
After crashing the digital wireframe 7000 times and testing 3.5 million different elements, real world tests and a carefully-managed build process the Everest is finally ready to have the covers lifted off it in front of the world.
And then the whole process starts again.
Luke Hopewell traveled to Melbourne as a guest of Ford