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SAE International President Carla Bailo Speaks with Ford’s Doug Field to Discuss Product Design, Software-Defined Vehicles, and the Future of Autonomy at WCX 2024

Posted: April 24, 2024

When it comes to developing technology, one of the most important things to consider are the people that use it.

Ford’s Chief EV Digital Design Officer, Doug Field, emphasized the critical relationship between designers, engineers, and customers during his fireside chat with SAE International President Carla Bailo. He described how product design informed by audience feedback can help make emerging technologies more useful to public audiences.

“Apple was one of the first to connect people to tech. The iPod was not the first MP3 player, but the first holistically adopted one. With this in mind, we set up a unique design team at Ford that includes customer experiences in the development of physical and digital systems,” Field said.

To elicit achieve this, the two agreed that it is crucial to not only have technology fit a practical use, but that the comfort and user-friendliness of a product should be viewed as almost as “a friend.”

“My mission is for customers to look at our EVs and say, ‘This is the first EV that I understand.’ It takes a special kind of person to take complex technical designs and make them simple for the average user,” Field said.

The conversation turned to a software-first approach and its influence on the path to electrification.

Field believes that mobility professionals should be trying to reach a software-defined ecosystem, not just software-defined vehicles.

“They’re heavily connected, but I think that software is a bigger change than electrification,” he said.

Field contends that while software continues to influence vehicle design, engineers must be mindful of what specific functions be made digital.

“If this is going on a screen, then why? If this is going to be a mechanical function, why?” Field said.

As the conversation continued around vehicle software, the pair discussed Ford realigning its sights from creating vehicles functioning at autonomy level 4 to level 3 according to the SAE J3016 Levels of Driving Automation.

Field maintained that autonomy holds many benefits for drivers at low levels, and that one should consider the benefits, cost, and feasibility of creating highly autonomous vehicles. And most important, perhaps, is the appeal and practical application for the end user.

“Making a fully autonomous vehicle is harder than putting a man on the moon. What are the benefits to the driver? Is it worth it to the customer to buy a $250,000 vehicle with no wheel that can only go to pre-programmed destinations?” Field said.

He urged engineers to ask how autonomy can be used to actively assist people in their driving experience and pointed to connected vehicles as a useful tool for better understanding customers.

“If you value customer input and provide a rich digital environment, you can sell a car without wheels,” Field said.