Constructive criticism played an integral role in the development of the in-dash displays for the upcoming Focus electric vehicle, says Ford’s lead human-machine interface engineer.

Developing the EVs displays and HMI was unchartered territory for Paul Aldigheri and his team, as it was the first pure EV they had worked on.

“Because this was new, we initially started with ethnographic research with folks who were interested in EVs, or may have built and owned their own EVs,” Aldigheri tells WardsAuto. Among people recruited to offer feedback was a pilot. Although he had no experience with EVs, his insight proved valuable, Aldigheri says.

Like EV drivers, pilots “are running on relatively limited resources with difficulty to refuel,” he says. “EV range is more variable than with an internal combustion engine when it comes to temperature and hills, and running out of (charge) is not the same as running out of gas; there’s a difference in the time to recharge and availability.”

Also consulted was the Michigan Electric Auto Assn., a group of electric-vehicle enthusiasts, many of whom have built their own EVs.

Feedback from the early test groups led to the development of early versions of the Focus’ multiple displays, including two 4.2-in. (10.7-cm) full-color LCD screens flanking the centrally located speedometer.

But some of the EV enthusiasts’ suggestions were deemed too complicated for normal consumers, most of whom would be experiencing an EV for the first time.

“There’s a difference in providing information to an expert than there is (to) a novice,” Aldigheri says. “Once we explained (to the experts) we had to cater to a different population, a light went off in their heads.”

Suggestions from the EV experts proved critical in guiding the team toward developing certain systems, including the Brake Coach, which provides drivers with tips on how to best utilize the Focus’ regenerative brakes.

The original Brake Coach developed by the team showed the absolute amount of energy captured by the brakes and sent back to the battery, as well as energy lost to friction. Participants said the setup was too complex, and the indication of energy lost to friction was not well understood.

Taking the criticism to heart, engineers simplified the program to show just the relative proportion of energy recaptured from what was available.

“When people saw that and complained about it not being clear, we were inspired to go with something simpler and focused on just energy that could be recaptured,” he says.

The experts also gave thumbs-down to a graphically depicted circuit board, which was used to show additional range beyond one’s charge destination.

The circuit board was seen as cold, unattractive and not exciting. It was dropped in favor of a butterfly motif to indicate additional charge: The more there are, the greater the range.

“Butterflies are a safe image that doesn’t alienate people,” Aldigheri says, noting the butterflies will be displayed on the right-hand LCD display.

For the novice’s point of view, test subjects recruited from within Ford participated in an 11-mile (17.7-km) simulated drive circuit over a variety of terrain.

Using Ford testers allowed Aldigheri to avoid both potential intellectual-property issues associated with outside subjects, and exposure of early prototypes of the production IP.

The internal-research participants initially were hesitant to criticize the IP. But once Aldigheri assured them honest feedback was essential to development of the vehicle, criticisms and suggestions were offered.

“We learned quite a bit and took feedback into account,” he says. “We felt good about the concepts we had, and then we refined them.”

Existing technologies, such as the MyFord Touch infotainment system, were modified and integrated into the EV’s unique systems to provide information about range, destinations and charge points.

The EV cluster’s “MyView” feature allows a number of personalization choices via 5-way buttons on the steering wheel that can be used to configure information on the left LCD display.

The lessons learned in developing the Focus EV displays will be applied to future Ford electrified vehicles. The auto maker has announced plans to launch five electrified vehicles in North America by 2012 and in Europe by 2013.

The Focus EV is to launch in limited markets later this year, with a full rollout in 2012.

“From the start of the research we wanted to include all our electrified products,” Aldigheri says. “We wanted to make it feel like there was a family of HMIs.”

bpope@wardsauto.com