Hybrid and electric car drivers are getting messages about how well they're doing through graphics on their dashboard. Soon, they'll get to compete online.
Mention electric cars to some folks, and they get images in their heads of dashboards full of gauges and gadgets, like the never-ending instrument panel in "Airplane!".
Ford Motor Co. is bypassing that worry by giving drivers an alternative to complex graphs and displays in favor of something almost like a game. Drivers of the Fusion Hybrid see leaves growing on a vine to determine how efficiently they're driving, while Focus Electric Vehicle owners see butterflies in their dashboard display as a measure of how many miles they can safely drive on a charge.
These displays don't only communicate information in a creative way, they also help drivers who already have an interest in being more environmentally responsible—they're driving these cars, after all—get the most out of their cars. "We figured if we can show success for certain metrics with these symbols that have a motivational power at an emotional level, we can coach more effectively," says Paul Aldighieri, a human-machine interface engineer at Ford.
Soon, the motivation will go beyond the car. Through Ford's MyFord Mobile app, drivers will soon have the opportunity to earn and share badges for driving achievements.
Growing and transforming
Ford's engineers came up with the idea of representing driving efficiency in their hybrids with leaves around 2005 or 2006, Aldighieri says.
"Efficiency is key, so we represent successful efficient driving with these leaves, which connect back to environment," he says.
The automaker unveiled the leaf display in late 2008, in early looks at the 2010 Fusion Hybrid's SmartGauge LCD instrument panel. In 2009, the company revisited the idea of graphical displays and asked hybrid drivers and people with an interest in hybrid or electric vehicles just what motivated them to look into those cars.
Their reasons included saving money on fuel, protecting the environment, interest in new technology and wanting to help the United States end its dependence on imported oil. The team considered a number of different "emotive themes" as Aldighieri puts it to represent all those things. They thought about a circuit board to represent how the car works technically, butterflies and some different nature images for the political concerns. "That was kind of difficult," he says.
After some thought, the team recalled the single, powerful image of the leaves in the hybrid's SmartGauge. "The program team and the development team decided it probably makes sense not to focus on four motivations," Aldighieri says. So the team focused on butterflies for the Focus EV as a representation of how well drivers balance battery use. "In the EV, it's not so much about efficiency. It's about range anxiety," he says. "Don't lose all your butterflies or else you're not going to make it, or you're going to make more extreme changes."
Finding the soft spot
The team chose the butterfly as the key image for the display for a lot of reasons. For one, Aldighieri says, it "doesn't alienate too many people," unlike some other symbols of environmental conservation. Likewise, butterflies tread lightly, they transform from caterpillars and there's the "butterfly effect" when a small change makes a big impact. "There's a number of different dimensions to it representing what we want it to represent in the EV," he says.
The use of the butterfly and leaf symbols aim for "a softer spot" in the driver, Aldighieri says, one that a graph or a gauge wouldn't touch. It's "a left-brain/right-brain" difference. That said, drivers also have the option of looking at a graph or no indicator at all.
The app and achievements
The MyFord Mobile app doesn't yet include badges for driving an EV or a hybrid well, but it's on its way. "There will be opportunities to achieve badges for different accomplishments," Aldighieri says. "We're working on a list of achievements."
A spokeswoman for Ford said the company's not quite ready to discuss the specifics of MyFord Mobile's social media elements just yet, but Aldighieri says achievements could include milestones such as the first 1,000 miles of gas-free driving, or things "that are a little more competition-oriented," such as getting the highest distance on a full charge. According to a post at The Gamification Blog, badges will also reward getting to know the various features in a car, asking questions online, writing posts and limiting the amount of CO2 drivers create.
"We really want to foster a full EV community," product engineer Joseph Rork told the blog. "There are a lot of things that should be shared … and we want to foster those conversations and help people share their information out as easily as possible."