Keeping new plans under wraps can be tricky. Ford have come up with a fascinating solution, though.
Inspired by those "squint and you see the hidden image" optical illusions, "industry spies" (yes, they are a real problem) are being outwitted by an incredible 3D camouflage that lets engineers test top-secret prototype cars on public roads. Here's how they do it.
The cars themselves are covered with a special coating of stickers in a range of swirling, mind‑bending, squiggling designs creating an optical illusion that makes it super difficult for eyes to focus on the outlines.
Ford calls it "Brick" camouflage, and it makes it almost impossible to notice new exterior features in sunlight, both in person and in photos.
"Almost everyone has a smartphone now and can share photos instantly – making it easy for anyone, including our rivals, to see vehicles in testing," said Lars Muehlbauer, manager, Camouflage, Ford of Europe. "The designers create beautiful cars with cool design features. Our job is to keep those features hidden."
Each new camouflage takes around two months to develop and is then printed on superlight vinyl stickers, which are thinner than a human hair, and "uniquely" applied to each vehicle. Designs are first tested on a closed Ford test track to ensure the camouflage does the job.
"I tried to create a design which is chaotic and that confuses the eyes," said Marco Porceddu, vehicle prototype engineer, Product Development, Ford of Europe, who developed the new camouflage. "I researched optical illusions on the internet and came up with a shape that could be copied and overlapped thousands of times. This creates both an optical illusion and a 3D effect."
It is tailored to regional environments, too - thecamouflage blends in with winter environments in Europe, while sand colours are used in Australia and South America.
"This camouflage will stand out in almost any environment, but it's designed to destroy the integrity of the vehicle's shape, surfaces and colour, delaying your brain's ability to recognise it, or its key features by sight," said Martin Stevens, Associate Professor, University of Exeter; who has studied Animal Coloration and Camouflage for almost 15 years.
"The optical illusion doesn't prevent the car being seen, but plays with your ability to measure depth of field and shadows, making it difficult to see shapes and car features. It is a trick used in nature to get away from something or to hide that is equally useful to a car test driver."