In a media release, Ford Motor Co. expressed the challenge as follows: “The sense of touch and intuitive understanding of quality are innately human characteristics, but how do you measure them?” Ironically, it finds the answer for the ultimate measure of human-machine interaction not in a human being but in another machine.
For Ford, the best predictor of human comfort in its car is a robot named RUTH, an acronym for Robotized Unit for Tacility and Haptics.
RUTH assesses the texture, feel, and reach built into the design of a car’s interior to improve quality. RUTH doesn’t look like what many of us picture as a robot, because it is essentially just an arm with detachable fingers. The arm’s function is to poke, turn, and push at the knobs and buttons, interacting with the car as a human driver would, to come up with what drivers want and expect.
The way it works begins with data already obtained. Ford engineers program in what humans prefer. RUTH then refers to that data when taking measurements to analyze which aspects are too hard, too soft, too hot, too cold, or just right for Ford customers. The data-driven assessment eliminates subjective predispositions, though that doesn’t mean that you get robotically objective data either. Ford said it takes into account human expectations of what something should feel like. For example, as people expect what looks like metal to have a cooler feel than plastic or wood-like materials, it must adjust the temperature accordingly.
Mark Spingler, Ford technical expert for vehicle interior technologies, reported the results of RUTH’s readings as very impressive. Normally Ford would expect something in the neighborhood of 80 percent accuracy but got 92 percent on its recommendations for steering wheel preferences, for example. Getting these things right depends not only on having the right size and shape but also on the right feel. Spingler explained: “When measuring friction the challenge was to model human skin, so we developed a friction finger with an underlay to monitor the feel of softness and the friction of the surface.”
In the media report, Luke Robinson, Ford metrologist and RUTH technician, explained, “Before RUTH, many engineers had access only to hand-held measuring tools, and no means to test the interiors” other than approximate trial and error. In contrast, putting RUTH in a car can give engineers the data they need clearly and quickly. Watch RUTH in action for yourself:
Ford has had this technology in an advanced research center in Europe since 2009. This summer marks RUTH's arrival in North America, where the technology is applying its data advantages to the 2013 Fusion models. In the media item, Eileen Franko, Ford craftsmanship supervisor, said data from RUTH gives Ford the ability to provide a level of comfort in the Fusion that's comparable to that of a high-end luxury car. “I might be biased, but RUTH isn’t,” she said. And that assures that the standards for the car “are the best in the world.”
Well, even the best may not please all of the people all of the time, but if Ford gets a satisfaction rate of 92 percent, it's done really well in applying data toward achieving quality.