Ford Turns to Design and Data Visualization to Boost Sales

Ford sales are suffering. In an attempt to improve, they’re going green with hybrid vehicles, and in doing so, had to shift their design. In their initial studies with IDEO, the Palo Alto-based design group, they found that drivers who were interested in fuel efficiency were “playing a game.” Getting more miles to the gallon was like earning points. With that in mind, Ford worked with Smart Design to create a high-resolution LCD dashboard to show drivers how efficiently they drive.

In order to play into the research finding that drivers are looking for a high score when it comes to fuel efficiency, one high-resolution LCD screen on the dash features an eye-catching rendering of curling vines blooming with green leaves. It’s more than a decorative element; it’s a data-visualization tool intended to change the way people drive. If a driver wastes gas by aggressively accelerating or slamming on the brakes, for example, the vine withers and leaves disappear. More leaves appear if individuals drive more economically. The system will be standard on all new Fusion Hybrids, which will start at about $27,000.

There’s still another 6 months until we see the results of this design shift, but what do you think of this futuristic-looking dashboard?

[via BusinessWeek | Thanks, Alastair]


  • It looks nice. Will have to see it “for real” before making my mind though. Pixels – almost – always look nice, final product not that often !

  • I like it that Ford is doing something with the dashboard differently. Has been a long time. “Get rewards the better you drive”. I think it’s nice. It’s all in the details.

    Hope it is worth the 27.000 I have to pay to get a car like that, but that we will see in 6 months. :-)

  • The concept of providing visual data that correlates to efficiency while driving is great. But let’s not forget that it is very hard to improve upon the analog display. I don’t care for (what appears to be) a transparent polygon extending below the digital replication of a needle, as shown in the gas and temp gauge. I’d prefer to get hard data, such as specific temperature, and retain the high and low outliers. They do show miles to empty, as a subset to the right the fuel gauge space. But the background image of green leaves would get old – does it change to a less-green image when you floor it?

    It would help to bolster the traditional ‘idiot lights’ with quantitative data. Why do our vehicles produce a “Check Engine Light” which does nothing other than concern the driver, and force the consumer to pay a technician to download the numerical code, which then helps a mechanic diagnose the problem – just give the driver the code and a website or manual to decipher it. When people understand the language of the machines they operate, even at a basic level, it helps form a bond between human and machine. Design should always strive to do just that.

  • I guess 120mph is there for symmetry. Would pegging the speedometer turn the green leaves to radioactivity icons?

    But have you ever wondered why is the speedometer so dominant in a dashboard? Why not reverse the dominant roles so the efficiency is prominent and the speed is marginalized?

  • IMO HUDs are the way forward. The ideas here are good – getting data on your driving should be easier than the old school displays (like an 80s pocket calculator) which show only one statistic such as mpg, total distance travelled etc.

    @michael hermann: I would agree that more information would be useful – also in the sense that I wouldn’t feel so helpless when I have to go to a mechanic. The more information available to the consumer the more empowered we can be.

    @Chris: Speed is dominant due to the legal ramifications – ultimately it also will have an impact on efficiency. RPM displays seem to have had their heyday…

  • I find it a bit funny that no one has even mentioned how adding additional “eye candy” to your dashboard is another needless distraction, and takes away from your safety.

    Now that I think about it, the most extreme way to reduce your impact on the environment is to be dead.

    Safety first, please.

  • Me, I’d like a rev counter, but then I probably drive by the revs as much as by speed. To answer your question, I’d love to know how economically I was driving but in a see-at-a-glance way.

    The irony is that disposing of a car is such an un-green thing to do that it’s greener to keep just about any old car on the road than it is to buy a new one. So it’ll be a few years yet before I get one of these.

  • I think it’s worth mentioning again that the goal behind the design was to make energy conservation more like a game. If there were more data or if it were more “serious”… well, it would just be another dashboard.

  • But just how wise is it to make driving a car feel like a game Nathan? I’ve been in a car when someone was driving like they were playing Grand Theft Auto (in a busy road in west London) and it was … not good. Whoever is driving the car may well be ok if they suffer from a ‘sense of reality failure’ but pedestrians don’t have airbags.

  • Safety is one thing. Sales are another :)

  • Regrettably, many drivers care more about the price of gas than about the environmental and social impacts of driving. Dashboard meters that displayed $/mile or $/hour might be more effective at changing driving habits. We need gas pumps that feed the price to the car when we fill our tanks. Then the dash can hit us where it hurts.

    regarding safety first… Since these extra meters are virtual, maybe they should hide themselves when the car is in motion.

  • Those are very good ideas Eddie!

    From my perspective, this would be more useful as a social application presented to you on and interfaced with your phone, similar to what MyMileMarker has done, but more of a competitive angle. See the top MPG drivers among my friends, for example. These people spent the least amount on gas this week. The meter doesn’t need to be embedded into the dashboard.

    A little positive social pressure.

  • Speed is a quantity which is important to know on an instantaneous basis. This is the only reason to allow a dial gauge for data display.

    Isn’t efficiency an ongoing measure? It makes no sense to display the instantaneous measure of efficiency. It matters less what my efficiency is right this moment, while I’m driving up a steep hill or backing into a parking spot. It’s more useful and more important to see how efficiently the car has been operating over the past (insert a length of time). Check your efficiency daily to make sure there’s nothing wrong with the gas you’re buying. Check over the past month to look for engine problems.

    This is the problem with so many business dashboards. Fancy dial gauges that show right now what’s happening, when a line chart showing trends over the past month, quarter, or year would be much more informative and much better to base a business decision upon. Maybe that’s one reason why Ford and the other automakers are on the skids: imporper measurement and reporting of their business performance.

  • Like Zach I’d rather drivers looked where they were going than the economy gauge…

  • There is an interesting unintended effect that occurs given the set of “side” gauges (all other than the tac in the center) in their current form. The layout for the gauges all have a similar structure – a bar chart where there is one value on the X Axis (Fuel quantity, battery charge level, mpg, etc) and as you move up the Y Axis, it illustrates an increase for the X Axis value.

    When you (roughly) anchor several representations at the same spot, in close spatial proximity – all having that similar layout, your pre-cognitive (perceptual) processing actually tries to compare the values across the gauges. Even though the Y-Axis values aren’t related.

    And I’m willing to bet that the driver isn’t “comparing my quantity of fuel to my battery’s charge level” or “compare my mpg to my remaining amount of fuel.”

    The design is a little more emotional design than representational design for decision support, as you can tell by the overall layout. But there are unintended consequences of the representations that the designers choose, with respect to how your perceptual and cognitive processes interpret that information.

    This is something that folks designing decision support systems in the Cognitive Systems Engineering field refer to as the “parameter X, parameter Y problem.” The representational design elements that you choose should be dependent on the decisions that they are supporting – not merely based on aesthetic layout.

  • Speed is a safety and legal issue, so I’m fine with that being front and center. But, I’d like to see a secondary gauge that is as prominent, but configurable to the driver’s metric of interest. The display would be similar to those in many cars that have equal size speed and RPM gauges. With the digital display, however, the units of the second gauge could be changed from RPM to MPG, or even better, fuel cost per mile. For the later, the driver could enter the price paid per gallon at each fill-up, and then see how fast they are burning through their money, literally. Cost per mile (or other reasonable distance) would be less-than-instantaneous, but still put some sport in playing the green-game.