Ford Looking To Break Paradigms with Th!nk

What the Palm Pilot computer is to the PC, the Th!nk is to the automobile, and like the former, it can be far more useful at times.

Published: 14-Jan-2001

The challenge of TH!NK is less one of design engineer/manufacture and more one of habit/opinion/ baggage. Sure, there are demands that are being faced by the team of this not-well-known enterprise within the Ford Motor Company organization (no offense to the country, but this is an auto manufacturing operation that was established in Norway, so its comparative lack of visibility is understandable) vis-a-vis d/e/m (for example, looking for the means by which they can attain what Nick Palmer, global brand manager of the TH!NK Group, describes as "low-volume production with high-- volume efficiencies": "Ford has a number of manufacturing operations in Europe, and so we know that there are things that we can use"-- suspension, door trim among them).

No, those issues can be considered to be comparatively trivial in light of the h/o/b issues that are being faced as the TH!NK cars are being prepared for launch in the U.S. in 2002. (Right now they are on sale in Scandinavia; the city is being redesigned for sale in the U.S.-and speaking of the Scandinavian market in light of the low production reference in the preceding paragraph, it should be noted that in the first year of production [starting in November 1999 in the TH!NK Nordic AS factory, which is about 30 miles outside of Oslo], 250 units have been sold.)

Consider these specs: Seating capacity: 2 Body dimensions: 9.8-ft long; 5.25-ft. wide; 5.1-ft height Curb weight: 2,075 lb. Top speed: 56 mph Acceleration: 0 to 30 mph in 7 seconds

In light of habit, that's small, too small, and slow, too slow, in a land of gigantic sport utes (with-ironically enough-the Ford Excursion being the most Brobdignagian of all).

There is a correlation in the minds of many that S = m + re With S being safety m being mass re being real estate Another way of stating it: "Bigger is safer."

Palmer makes several points that essentially undercut the definitive linkage between size and safety, not only citing the TH!NK approach (he says that before the car is released in North America, "We will maximize safety." They'll be doing the necessary U.S. and Canadian crash tests; they'll be equipping the city with dual airbags; they will be working as diligently as they can to get as many stars as possible on their crash test rating), but noting that DaimlerChrysler is selling the SMART in Europe, which is a car that is actually smaller than the city, yet which has proven itself to be roadworthy (except for those who ascribe to the aforementioned equation).

What's more, Palmer observes, "Safety is not just about the ability to hit a brick wall. It's also about being able to avoid it." The city is designed for maneuverability, not only the ability to be slotted into parking spaces that would otherwise be impenetrable, but to allow the driver to drive defensively. Palmer explains that in large part this maneuverability is a function of weight distribution. He points out that when it comes to a race car, there are two things that the designers and engineers keep in mind. One is that weight is minimized. The other is that the weight is located where it is most ef fective with regard to handling. (And, no, he doesn't think that a car that's capable of a top end of 56 mph is a race car.) According to Palmer, the placement of an internal combustion engine either at the front or rear of a vehicle is not the most efficient with regard to handling. Central and low is a better position to place the bulk of the weight. Which is exactly what is done with the city.

The lower frame of the vehicle is steel, 90% of which is high-strength steel. The upper frame is extruded and welded aluminum. The body panels are polyethylene. The roof is ABS plastic. Not much weight there.

The real weight-some 530 lb. of it-that's located so as to provide a low center of gravity takes the form of the 19 nickel cadmium (NiCd) batteries that are used for propulsion. Yes, the city is an electric vehicle (EV). Which, with respect to h/o/b, is certainly a more-demanding hump to get over than finding some trick bits in European Ford plant part bins.

Palmer makes no claim that the city is a car for everyone. He even points out that in the world of EVs it isn't a "full-- function" vehicle. Sure, it comes with tinted glass, a heater, audio, and can be equipped with a CD player, aluminum wheels, and an alarm system, but it is fundamentally a "mobility" unit, not a full-fledged car. In the EV world, "full function" means being able to carry four people and their luggage for 100 miles or more. The city doesn't meet any of those hurdles.

"Someone once said it's like the comparison between a Palm Pilot to a computer," he quips. Sometimes, the Palm is a whole lot more useful.

As an example of the usefulness potential of the city, Palmer cites the traffic situation in San Francisco. (During a trip there in October, I witnessed a man trying to parallel park on California Street: he was fitting his compact pickup into the space by using the bumpers of the vehicles fore and aft as physical guides.) According to Palmer, there is a health club in the Presidio that is incredibly popular: the fact that there is available parking is key to this success. The city would facilitate otherwise car-locked sites in SF as well as in other cities to become more available.

TH!NK is actually working in the Bay Area to create awareness and to provide people with the opportunity to actually drive an EV (with hopes of doing away with some of the h/o/b that exists without warrant): 15 city units are sited in San Francisco. There are two uses. One is that city cars are going to be available for BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) shared-car subscribers at a Hertz facility at the BART station in Fremont, CA, so that people can drive to and from home and the station. Additionally, Hertz is making the city available for day rental at its Fisherman's Wharf location. There are 40 city cars slated for the Ford fleet in Dearborn, MI, as well.

When asked about what he hopes to achieve when the city launches in 2002, Palmer says that he hopes that they will be able to get thousands of people to try a TH!NK during the first eight months so that they'll be able to make up their minds on the viability of what could be a second car or runabout. "A lot of the baggage is based on no first-hand knowledge," he comments. "If someone objects, there is no reason to argue."

Although he'd undoubtedly like for people to opt for TH!NK, Palmer and his colleagues recognize that people may prefer to drive a Taurus. But at least they'll be able to understand that something that has historically (yes, the history is recent) been considered, well, odd may, in fact, have practical application... for someone else.

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