February 7, 2009 at 1:00 am

Scott Burgess

Ford's balloon car isn't hot air

Ford engineers created a balloon car to cut the expense of crashing into test vehicles. (Ford)

DEARBORN -- Perfecting safety systems is like making an omelet -- you have to crack a few bumpers to get it right. But driving test vehicles into other cars can get expensive.

That's why Ford Motor Co. is turning to balloon cars -- blow up vehicles it can crash into without the subsequent repair costs.

The company also is using them to speed up testing for its Adaptive Cruise Control with Collision Warning with Brake Support system that will debut on the 2010 Ford Taurus and Lincoln MKS this year.

I tested the collision mitigation system at Ford's test track and development center in Dearborn this week. The $10,000 balloon car vaguely looks like a car; it more resembles something that might star in a Pixar movie: Beanie, the overweight caricature of a compact car. Ford has a dozen balloon cars in different sizes.

But the testing is no film or fantasy. It's serious stuff that could prevent thousands of accidents a year. According to a recent study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, roughly 30 percent of the time drivers operate a vehicle, they are engaged in distracting behavior. That's not people in accidents, that's just people on the road, so having some back up certainly can't hurt.

Here's how Ford's system works:

Driver A is puttering along. Driver B, in the Lincoln MKS, has a radar monitoring the traffic in front of him. As Driver A slows down, Driver B doesn't notice; he's talking on his cell phone, eating an Angry Whopper, tying his shoe and disciplining his stepchildren in the back seat. A computer connected to the radar has been continuously monitoring Driver A. Finally, it determines the two vehicles are on a collision course to the insurance agent's office and the system begins to precharge the brake calipers. It then mutes the stereo, flashes a red light across the bottom of the windshield and makes this loud beep, beep, beep sound.

Driver instincts take over, and Driver B looks up and stomps the brake pedal. The MKS stops faster than normal because the calipers have been set and the accident is avoided.

Even when I was trying to hit the car balloon, just to teach it a lesson and knock it loose from the frame, the buzzer in the car scared me and I would slam the brakes. All the system needs now is the lovely Sync voice to come on over the stereo, "Accident avoided, pay attention next time."

Mike Lopez, Ford's active safety manager, said, they tried different ways to test the collision warning system and finally came up with the balloon car.

"No one had one of these, so we had to have it custom made," he said. "It's worked out really well."

Indeed, a Ford Expedition with steel scaffolding bolted to the roof holds the 40-pound balloon car to the side of the SUV. Engineers use metal paint on the back of the balloon car to create a giant square silver bull's eye to hit. The radar locks onto metal objects.

The system works remarkably well. It requires no input from the driver -- though the system can be manually set to one of three distances for it to engage. Once the car starts and tops 6 mph, the system is operational.

Scott Burgess is the auto critic for The Detroit News. He can be reached at (313) 223-3217 or sburgess@detnews.com">sburgess@detnews.com.

A Ford test driver purposely crashes into the balloon car to tune the ... (Ford)
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