June 16, 2014 at 6:51 am

Engineer keeps Ford's DNA healthy in each part, across every model

Larry Kummer, manager of vehicle integration for Ford Motor Co., checks the DNA of a Fusion. (Clarence Tabb Jr. / The Detroit News)

Dearborn —Larry Kummer likely has the most awesome auto job you’ve never heard of.

Heck, Kummer has the most awesome auto job he’s ever heard of.

It’s his job — as the eyes and ears of Ford Motor Co.’s self-described DNA — to drive Ford cars here, there and everywhere to ensure they look, feel and sound the same, whether a customer is in Russia, China or Dearborn.

Kummer’s official title is manager of vehicle integration, and to him it is “the coolest job in product development.” But he’s a sort of doctor of Ford’s DNA. He and his global team test vehicles on a variety of points, including driving dynamics, performance feel, seat comfort, powertrain sound and steering wheel feel and operation.

“Ford has been more vocal in the last few years about continuity between models both globally and locally,” said Karl Brauer, an analyst at Kelley Blue Book. “It’s smart. Mercedes has had something similar for years, and I think Ford has realized that if you can have positive traits across your lineup, they can execute a long-term sales plan.”

Most drivers compare their rides to vehicles they’ve driven in the past. In most instances, the new car clearly trumps the used car a driver just traded in, so it might be difficult for the average person to imagine the complexities behind creating a look, feel and sound for an entire vehicle brand.

But sit down in any Ford vehicle and it’s the similarities — and not just the model-to-model differences — that will pop out.

The backs of all seats are curved, and not boxy, so they conform better to occupants’ bodies. The backs are also open closer to the head rest, so that broader-shouldered motorists don’t feel scrunched. Seats are the most difficult to get right, Kummer said, but once they are, they garner some of the highest satisfaction ratings for the brand.

For those with vehicles that have push-button starts, a press of the button without a foot on the brake — a safety requirement to start the car — will prompt an audio chime. That chime, Kummer joked, was the winner among “50 million sound iterations” tested on research customers “a million times.”

Other Ford standards: The exterior lighting control knob is always to the left of the steering wheel on the dashboard. Rotary volume dials turn with the same cadence, and the door lock and unlock buttons are thoroughly tested to ensure they will work with minimal — but not too minimal — pressure. And steering wheels are padded with foam. (In an industry trend, Ford will soon pad them even more to fatten the wheels across the lineup.)

“A normal driver doesn’t think about any of these things; it’s not their job,” Kummer said. “It’s our job to make sure when they feel the door handle, the steering wheel, the switches and hear the chime, it all comes together.”

Getting the 'Ford flavor'

In the past decade, Ford has transformed its structure of building vehicles for each region of the world and now builds cars and crossovers that are nearly identical all across the globe.

“One of the first things we had to figure out was, ‘what is the Ford flavor? What are Ford products going to be known for in terms of their functional performance?’ ” the 52-year-old engineer said.

That has meant a rapidly expanding role for Kummer, who has to account for subtle regional and demographic driving preferences while keeping a Focus in the U.S. and a Focus in China mostly indistinguishable.

European drivers want a firmer driving feel, Indian drivers need higher ground clearance in case of flooding.

There are some vehicles — the F-150 and Mustang — which are legacy models that can deviate from the current Ford look, feel and sound. For instance, Mustang drivers love the throaty sound of a V-8 engine, but Fiesta drivers prefer as little engine noise in the cabin as possible.

Never-ending tweaks

But aside from those two iconic nameplates, Ford has a strict policy on making changes to the company’s vehicle DNA.

“The Ford DNA is essential for us to make vehicles people are thrilled to drive and own,” said Raj Nair, Ford’s product development chief. “Larry’s team has to get these product nuances right on every product launch worldwide. It’s hugely important.”

And only Nair can sign off on changes to the Ford DNA, Kummer said.

Kummer has had his title for six years, so he’s had a front-row seat to Ford’s massive vehicle lineup overhaul. But his work is never finished.

He says his team is constantly trying to improve the look, feel and sound of its cars, and each year surveys each of the Ford DNA features — using media criticisms, customer satisfaction surveys and internal data — to see where adjustments can be made.

Before it decided to bulk up the steering wheel, for example, Ford created eight iterations to determine which felt most comfortable in the hands of target customers while still fitting in with the rest of the Ford vehicle package.

“They won’t ever say they buy a car because of the steering wheel,” he said. “It’s because of the whole thing.”

khenkel@detroitnews.com
(313) 222-2504
twitter.com/karlhenk

It's Larry Kummer's job to ensure wherever and whenever a Ford is driven, ... (Clarence Tabb Jr. / The Detroit News)