Ford wants to eliminate odor from new cars by baking them
Ford Motor Co. has filed a patent application for an odor-removal process that eliminates the new car smell after a vehicle has been purchased.
This is the latest attempt in an industry effort to accommodate consumer tastes in different parts of the world: Consumers in China say they hate the new car smell.
“Unpleasant interior smell/odor remains the top industry problem in that market,” said Brent Gruber, senior director, global automotive, at J.D. Power. “To put that in context, it is nearly double the problem rate of the second most prevalent problem, excessive fuel consumption.”
Consumer feedback from Chinese buyers in recent years has been consistent. More than 10 percent of drivers complained about the issue according to the 2018 J.D. Power China Initial Quality Study.
Americans seem to like it, though.
“When I go online, I can find 30 different products that will give my car that new car smell,” said Brian Moody, executive editor at Autotrader. “And now they’ve come up with something to limit it?”
But China is the largest car market in the world, so carmakers take notice.
Ford made headlines in July 2017 for “counting on a team of recruits to its Chinese research labs … 18 smell testers, or so-called ‘Golden Noses,’ charged with making sure new cars don’t smell bad,” Quartz media said. “That’s because Chinese car buyers are particularly sensitive to the smell of their new cars. They place unpleasant smells ahead of engine performance or safety as their top reason for not buying a new car.”
Smell testers assess the odor of every item in the car, from floor carpets to the steering wheel, rejecting any that may offend a Chinese buyer, Quartz noted.
While the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office hasn’t issued a ruling on the “vehicle odor remediation” patent application, and Ford hasn’t committed to moving forward with the project, the paperwork explains what creates the odor so many Americans like:
That new car smell is caused by volatile organic compounds given off by leather, plastic and vinyl. Chemicals used to attach and seal car parts may also contribute to the odor.
People notice odors when compounds are released, which occurs when a car sits in high temperatures. Ford scientists describe baking the car until the odor disappears, which happens after compounds are released.
The process described in the patent involves parking the car in the sun, opening the windows slightly, and optionally turning the engine, heater and fan on.The system includes special software and various air quality sensors, and works only when fitted to a driverless or semi-autonomous vehicle.
A lot of technology is involved in the patent application. The car would determine whether conditions are right to expel compounds, and the car would drive itself to a place in the sun and bake away the offensive odor.
The company declined to discuss specifics of the technology.
“While ‘new car smell’ is ingrained in American culture, we know Chinese customers dislike that scent. This patent is the result of years of research and is just one idea we are considering for future use,” said Debbie Mielewski, senior technical leader in materials sustainability at Ford.
The company indicated it had no specific production plans at this time, said Ford spokesman Karl Henkel.
But globalization means acknowledging consumer needs worldwide. And Chinese consumers are among the most savvy when it comes to nuance and detail.
“When it comes to certain cars, luxury cars especially, buyers in China like the idea of layers. If you buy a luxury car and pull back the carpeting and it’s just metal, that’s low quality,” Moody said. “If you’ve ever done an interview with a Chinese or Japanese television station, they’ll give you a gift. You talk to the reporters because it’s your job and they give you these little gifts wrapped in tissue paper with a bow wrapped in more tissue paper and wrapped again. There’s a kind of pageantry. Everything matters.”
At every turn, carmakers are looking for ways to earn Chinese customer loyalty in a new and valuable market, he said.
People fail to fully grasp the unusual challenges that face the auto industry, said Maeva Ribas, manager of design analysis at The Carlab, an automotive product planning consulting group based in Southern California.
Even something like car interior color is hard to standardize because the light is different in different parts of the world and the way people filter color, she said.
“We do a bunch of research with a Japanese client. Take a beige interior, for example” said Ribas, a native of Monaco, France. “It just looks different when you see it in Japan versus here in the states. Beige works well there. In California, it looks different. In France, it looks different, too.”
She noted the recent use of symphony music by the new Lincoln Aviator to replace beeps and buzzes. “We know that sound is processed differently by different cultures, as well. So smell would make sense. The insights we get from doing research on those kind of things are just insane, in a very good way.”
Patents keep design options open for companies as they develop new products.
Companies often acquire patents they may let expire at a later date, if the technology is not needed.