Mustang Mach-E development doesn't stop for coronavirus

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Ford Motor Co. engineers are keeping the Mustang Mach-E program on track to launch this fall even as the coronavirus pandemic disrupts manufacturing, sales and other business.

As they work from home, the developers have traded team rides in prototype vehicles for recorded video, labs for garages, co-workers for children and office conversation for virtual chats. But the team developing Ford's first battery-electric Mustang SUV says it remains focused on completing the base model's final evaluations and continuing work on other versions.

Aleyna Kapur, a calibrator for the Mustang Mach-E, works out of a prototype vehicle in front of her house as she works remotely during the coronavirus pandemic.

"There are dogs, kids, there are older family members — that does add some spice to the process," said Rob Iorio, Mach-E vehicle engineering manager. "Everybody is just trying to adapt. Many of us have been working on this Mustang Mach-E for many years. It's in our blood. You can't just hit the pause button."

Neither can Ford when it comes to developing next-generation vehicles that promise to be at least one cornerstone of the automaker's push deep into its second century. Ford has a lot to prove with the Mach-E, says Sam Abuelsamid, an analyst with Navigant Research.

The vehicle is the automaker's vanguard for the electric era and built practically from scratch. Gas prices may be low and the Trump administration is rolling back emissions requirements, but Ford and other automakers like General Motors Co. have made clear their commitments to electric vehicles.

And especially after the launch of the Explorer SUV last year faced manufacturing and quality issues, causing monthslong delays and disappointing 2019 profits for the company, Ford must ensure the introductions of its forthcoming products go smoothly.

"The Mach-E is the embodiment of a whole different way of operation for Ford in terms of product development and represents a fundamental shift in the way Ford works," Abuelsamid said.

"It's really important as a demonstration both to consumers and the financial markets that 'We've learned from our past mistakes. We are ready to move forward.' By executing this program in what is a comparably short time period, it shows that Ford really has changed and they are ready for the future."

Although it might be difficult to run the vehicles in certain scenarios to test suspensions and braking systems, the development team is able to test their electronic architecture and software to ensure all the parts are working properly and reliably. With remote access to most of their usual tools, the developers say they can do almost everything they normally would. Team members took home prototype vehicles to test and from which to gather data.

"If there is a different calibration we want to try, I will jump into the vehicle, the flash goes in, I will take the car around the block, come back, look at the data, and see how things reacted," said Aleyna Kapur, a Mach-E calibrator who works to ensure the hardware, powertrain and software are all communicating with each other. "Maybe I'll get back in the vehicle, tweak a few things, and come back to the desk. It's right there."

The team used to switch prototypes with one another. Ford had provided a sanitization kit to clean down doors handles, steering wheels and other parts of the vehicles, but since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's stay-at-home order went into effect earlier this month, that practice has stopped. The developers have had to rely on teamwork instead.

"If I need something done in one vehicle," Kapur said, "I follow up with my fellow calibrators, and say, 'Hey, can you grab this data for me? Can you try this out? Can you make sure this diagnostic checks out?' We kind of help each other out at the end of the day. We’re making it work."

They also have to trust each other, Iorio said. Five-person team rides during which the developers would discuss the look, the feel and the operations of the vehicle are no longer a go. Instead, they take photos and video, uploading the too-large-to-email files to Ford's cloud to share the experiences.

"Dynamically, for that," Iorio said, "we have to have an amount of trust and communication for how it feels, how it’s coming along and making the Mustang Mach-E as good as it can be."

Combining work life and home life has other challenges, too. Husein Dakroub, supervisor of the Sync software in the Mach-E's infotainment system, admits his 1- and 3-year-old "assistants" sometimes can be a distraction from working on Sync's displays for navigation, electric vehicle and charging information and other features.

There are the Disney Plus streaming service and games to help, but he also developed a curriculum for his preschool-age daughter; it is focused on math and science, of course.

"That keeps her interested for around 30 minutes," Dakroub said. The children "have their own desks behind me. They poke me. I say they're my continuous second meeting."

For actual meetings, the developers have video conference software to connect in addition to an instant messenger. Some teams have gotten creative to add some levity to the circumstances, calling the virtual attendees to wear hats or sports jerseys or playing music to start off the discussion. Dakroub's 60-member software team one day last week spent their lunch hour on a video conference together. Some employees played guitar and the piano.

"It was a chance to bring back the emotions we used to have in these face-to-face discussions," Dakroub said.

What the experience also shows, Dakroub added, is the importance of businesses having the proper applications and tools in a society that increasingly takes advantage of the internet and technology.

"It's definitely an eye-opening moment for businesses," he said, "in using the opportunities of this cloud-connected world."

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble