Ford Motor Co. hopes a new feature on its Fusion Sport midsize sedan will help ease the pain of potholes.
When the new model of the country’s third-most popular midsize sedan goes on sale this summer, it will come standard with a system that looks ahead for craters and then prevents the wheel from dropping to the bottom.
Here’s how it works: A dozen high-resolution sensors anticipate when the car is about to hit a pothole. They send that information to the onboard computer, which directs the shock absorbers to adjust to their stiffest hydraulic damping level. That prevents the suspension from sagging and lets the tire skip across the void without slamming into the base or opposite side of the hole as harshly.
Ford demonstrated the technology in a test video with the assistance of ping pong balls: The wheels of the Fusion Sport don’t harm the balls placed at the bottom of a pothole, but the tires of a rival vehicle touch and crush them.
“It reduces the (impact) greatly,” Jason Michener, an engineer who designed the technology, said in an interview. “But there’s always one pothole that no amount of technology will protect you from.”
Ford said the pothole mitigation technology will be a first in the midsize sedan category. The automaker is attempting to differentiate itself from segment-leaders Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
High-end Lincolns, including the MKS and MKZ, have the system. It also is debuting in Europe on Ford’s Mondeo, Galaxy and S-MAX.
The automaker says it could implement the feature throughout its global lineup.
“We saw a need,” Michener said. “One of the biggest things our customers appreciate are nice-looking wheels. The bigger the wheel, the easier it is to damage when you go through potholes.”
On Wednesday, the American Automobile Association released a study claiming pothole damage cost U.S. drivers $15 billion in vehicle repairs over the last five years, or about $3 billion annually.
“On average, American drivers report paying $300 to repair pothole-related vehicle damage,” John Nielsen, AAA’s managing director of automotive engineering and repair, said. “Adding to the financial frustration, those whose vehicles incurred this type of damage had it happen frequently, with an average of three times in the last five years.”
Washington, D.C.-based national transportation research group TRIP estimates pothole damage costs urban motorists an average of $516 a year.
Ford developed the Fusion’s pothole mitigation technology after thousands of passes over potholes at its Michigan Proving Grounds in Romeo.
In later stages of development, the team tested it on real-world roads throughout Metro Detroit, and would even complain when road crews patched certain holes.
“There are some people who like an unresponsive city department,” Michener joked.
Potholes are a problem in other countries, too. Last year in the United Kingdom, the Royal Automobile Club responded to more than 25,000 pothole-related breakdowns – a nearly 25 percent increase since 2014, Ford said.
Beyond Michigan, Ford has developed a 1.2-mile road course in Lommel, Belgium, that creates precise replicas of some of the worst potholes and road hazards from countries like Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Spain and Switzerland.
The test track isn’t limited to potholes; it contains tricky road surfaces like granite blocks from Belgium, cobbles from Paris and speed bumps from Brazil.
Engineers race over the road hazards at speeds up to 45 miles per hour. Sensors record the loads and strains to the suspension and components.
“By incorporating these real-world challenges into our test facilities we can develop future vehicles to better cope with challenging conditions,” said Eric-Jan Scharlee, a durability technical specialist at Ford’s Lommel Proving Ground.