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Ford is testing an array of new "active" crash-avoidance and driver-aid technologies it will introduce in 2009 by driving prototypes into large, car-shaped balloons to help customers avoid real accidents.
Engineers use the balloons as target practice at Ford's Dearborn Development Center to test the company's new Adaptive Cruise Control with Collision Warning with Brake Support technology, one of the next-generation safety features Ford has developed to meet growing consumer demand for technology that helps avoiding sudden, unexpected hazards.
After introducing the system on the 2010 Ford Taurus, Lincoln is announcing the new system will be offered on the 2010 MKS, adding to the Lincoln flagship sedan's long list of exclusive technologies. These features include Active Park Assist, which helps customers parallel park quickly, easily and safely without touching the steering wheel.
"We want to build on Ford's leading number top crash-safety ratings by offering the most advanced crash-avoidance technologies," said Steve Kozak, Ford's global chief engineer, Safety Systems. "Delivering these new technologies required our teams to implement new types of testing."
Adaptive Cruise Control with Collision Warning with Brake Support is designed to warn drivers of possible hazards in front of them and assist them in reacting earlier. The area in front of the vehicle is continuously monitored by a radar sensor.
When the car approaches another moving vehicle from behind and the driver doesn't react, an audible warning alert sounds, and a warning lamp is illuminated on the windshield. If the collision risk increases further without an evasive driver response, the system pre-charges brakes and an emergency brake-assist feature is readied for the driver to activate more easily.
The system also allows the driver to set and maintain the vehicle's speed while a radar monitors traffic ahead. This optional system automatically adjusts speed and slows the vehicle to maintain the set distance behind traffic ahead.
To test the system, the balloons play the role of the "target" vehicle, allowing Ford engineers to prove out the feature without endangering test drivers or damaging real cars. About a dozen balloon cars, weighing more than 40 pounds, are available in different sizes and designed to test the radar precision.
"We're looking at primarily the timing of these mechanisms," said Jeffrey Laya, supervisor of Core Active Safety Systems. "We're verifying that the warning occurred within a certain range of time. You design it with a certain warning time in mind, but then you have to go out to the track and prove it out."
Developed in conjunction with Ford's European research teams, the balloon cars allow the tests to be conducted in a far safer manner than if real cars were involved. And that's good news for engineer and test driver Mike Lopez. Driving into a vehicle – even a balloon vehicle – isn't as easy as it sounds.
"The first few times you drive into the balloon, it's scary," he admits. "You are deliberately driving straight into a stationary object that looks like a car, and it's against every intuition you've developed since you started driving."
In many situations, he said, the test driver is not supposed to brake.
"That's tough," said Lopez, who has test driven into literally hundreds of balloons. "A lot of first-time drivers can't not brake."
From a research standpoint, though, the experience is enlightening. The tarp-like balloons – filled with air and sturdy enough to be used multiple times – offer enough give to allow impact without injury.
"With the balloon, there's no deceleration in the vehicle upon impact – in other words, you're not thrown forward at all. It's a good way to observe what's happening at the instant before the impact," Lopez said. "The shocking experience is when you deliberately distract someone and wait for a warning to go off before they look up and apply the brakes. It is usually surprising how fast the impact comes after being distracted. It's a real eye-opener."
In order for the radar to better identify the balloons as real cars, the balloon is sometimes "tuned" before testing – shapes or reflective characteristics are added that radars or cameras will identify.
There are a few drawbacks to testing with balloons, both Laya and Lopez say – they've both spent their share of time chasing an errant balloon or two when testing in high winds. But the extra effort is worth it, they agree.
"What the balloon car allows us to do," said Laya, "is run these tests in a much safer environment. And for us, it's all about safety."
The Lincoln MKS sedan – which went on sale last summer with strong initial sales that helped Lincoln gain share in the luxury segment in the second half of the year – raises the bar on exclusive technologies offered in a luxury car. The Lincoln MKS features:
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