Ford's Reflex Action
By Bill Moore
What's that old saw about "pulling hen's teeth"?
That's how I felt after interviewing Mike Tamor about Ford's Reflex concept car, which debuted at the 2006 North American International Auto Show in Detroit last month.
Tamor has spent the last decade at Ford working on their hybrid-electric power train, so when I asked him which aspect of the little concept car intrigued him the most, the answer should have been obvious. It's the concept car's HEV drive, stupid.
Still, it was pretty clear almost from the outset that he wasn't going to tell me much more about it beyond saying it would have all of the functionality the drive system in the Escape and Mariner Hybrids, including limited electric-only range at low speeds.
"I can't really discuss in detail the hybrid-drive, itself, because that would be indicative of where we're going in the future of HEV for small vehicles".
Interview over! Thank you and have a good day.
Well, not really. Mike Tamor was able to discuss some of the ideas implemented in the car which "suggest" future trends at Ford.
The most obvious is the size of the car. A last year's Detroit Auto Show, Ford rolled out the Mercury Meta, a big concept SUV with a diesel-electric hybrid drive, but plummeting consumer interest in these vehicles, due in no small measure to increasing energy costs in the last two years, appears to have forced a reappraisal of where the market is headed; and it appears headed towards smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles.
In a future two-part article, we'll talk with Freeman Thomas, the Director of Ford Strategic Design and David Woodhouse at Ford's design center in southern California about the Reflex's styling and how it evolved in the 9 months they had to produce a show car.
Incidentally, Tamor confirmed that the Reflex was, in fact, a roll-on car without a working propulsion system, like many "show properties", he explained. So, how did Ford arrive at the 65 mpg fuel efficiency number? From the same sophisticated modeling program it uses to develop its production vehicles.
"We know what the vehicle assumptions are, given the size and shape and aerodynamic drag, and the designer's input on what type of tires it should have. We have a very powerful modeling capability for designing the power train that matches that vehicle, and then modeling what its fuel economy performance will be."
From his perspective as the engineering executive helping oversee the hybrid-drive aspect of the project, Tamor told EV World that he's most intrigued by the potential synergies between the drive system, the new lithium-ion batteries and the roof-mounted solar panel.
While he wouldn't discuss any details about the inner-workings of the proposed drive train other than to say it will have all the functionality of the current system in Escape and Mariner, only in a different implementation, he did confirm that the diesel engine -- which also wasn't an area he was keen to discuss -- is a modern common rail engine developed in Europe.
With reference to the lithium-ion batteries, he noted that all carmakers, not just Ford, are looking seriously at them as a replacement for the current crop of nickel metal hydride batteries used in today's hybrids, including Ford's.
"It offers slightly higher efficiency, which will translate directly into fuel economy, and is considerably lighter than nickel battery technology for the same power and energy capabilities."
The Reflex's built-in solar roof panel is billed as powering the cabin ventilation system while the car is parked and recharging the 12-volt battery that powers the headlights. Tamor revealed that he's personally interested in using the electricity from the solar panel for recharging the lithium-ion, not for recharging the auxiliary battery, though the advantage of using the energy to run the ventilation system means the cabin will be kept cooler. This saves fuel because the air conditioner doesn't have to work so hard.
"Free energy is free energy. It will improve overall efficiency, maybe not much, but it can be surprising."
I asked Tamor if the additional costs incurred from mating a hybrid system to a diesel system, both technologies that carry sizeable premiums in their own right, can be justified in a small car like the Reflex, especially since it would tend to already be somewhat fuel efficient.
"Obviously, that's the question of the hour", he replied. "But if you take the trends as they are today and look out at the future, there's an increasing interest in small cars, regardless of the energy costs, plus where the world is going in the cost of energy, it could well make sense because that combination is the ultimate in efficiency."
He sees the cost of diesel coming down steadily and hybrid technology just beginning a similar trend, but he wasn't willing to forecast what the premium might be on some future diesel-electric hybrid.
In terms of how Ford Motor Company plans to cope with the ever-changing dynamics of the 21st century, he said, "It's pretty clear what's going on is that the way people use their vehicles and think about their vehicles and relate to them is changing very rapidly… the energy situation and the urban congestion situation is changing rapidly. So I think we're going to see a huge proliferation of different ideas of what private and personal transportation should be like. And the commitment here is that Ford is going to be there at the front of the pack".
When asked what forces will be the primary drivers of automotive innovation in the future, he responded that from the power plant perspective -- "what makes it go" -- it will be efficiency without compromise..
"Or maybe even efficiency with improvement and the Reflex has a lot of that in terms of not only being very highly efficient but also being capable of very high performance and with the electric all-wheel drive, very nimble vehicle dynamics".
Tamor explained that the Reflex would be powered by a hybrid-drive front transaxle and an electric rear axle, giving it not only all-wheel drive but also a modest improvement in regenerative breaking, as well as improved handling, a la Jaguar X-types.
Will there someday be a drivable version of the Reflex, I asked?
"Show cars like that are usually a collection of a variety of ideas, technologies and concepts synthesized together to show them all as one whole. Certainly many pieces of that technology, either are or will soon be tested on vehicles. Whether they'll all be synthesized back again into one, complete, drivable vehicle with them all working remains to be seen.
"There is nothing on there that isn't worth the trip," he concluded somewhat obtusely, but then that's part of the game.
You can learn a bit more about the Reflex from Ford's original press release. Also watch for our upcoming interview with Freeman Thomas and David Woodhouse who oversaw design and construction of the Reflex concept car.