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click the image above for a high-resolution gallery of Ford's car balloons

Ford is working hard to continue earning top marks for crash safety. With a platform inherited from Volvo, they might as well keep piling on the goodies, including radar-assisted cruise control that keeps an eye out for impending collisions and charges up the brakes preemptively. How do you develop, test, and tune such a system? "Why, they smashed a lot of cars into each other" you might conclude. That sounds expensive, and if there's one thing all automakers have been trying to do for quite some time now, it's save cash. Instead of running hunks of metal into one another, Ford has been using balloons shaped like cars for target practice.

With a price tag of $10,000, the balloons might seem a waste, but they can be reused multiple times and no cars get damaged in the process. Plus, the air-filled faux-mobiles facilitate a safer experience for test drivers and are guaranteed to provide some comic relief on windy days. Press release after the jump

[Source: Ford]

DEARBORN, Mich., Feb. 9, 2009 – Ford is testing an array of new "active" crash-avoidance and driver-aid technologies it will introduce in 2009 by driving prototypes into large, car-shaped balloons to help customers avoid real accidents.

Engineers use the balloons as target practice at Ford's Dearborn Development Center to test the company's new Adaptive Cruise Control with Collision Warning with Brake Support technology, one of the next-generation safety features Ford has developed to meet growing consumer demand for technology that helps avoiding sudden, unexpected hazards.

After introducing the system on the 2010 Ford Taurus, Lincoln is announcing the new system will be offered on the 2010 MKS, adding to the Lincoln flagship sedan's long list of exclusive technologies. These features include Active Park Assist, which helps customers parallel park quickly, easily and safely without touching the steering wheel.

"We want to build on Ford's leading number top crash-safety ratings by offering the most advanced crash-avoidance technologies," said Steve Kozak, Ford's global chief engineer, Safety Systems. "Delivering these new technologies required our teams to implement new types of testing."

Adaptive Cruise Control with Collision Warning with Brake Support is designed to warn drivers of possible hazards in front of them and assist them in reacting earlier. The area in front of the vehicle is continuously monitored by a radar sensor.

When the car approaches another moving vehicle from behind and the driver doesn't react, an audible warning alert sounds, and a warning lamp is illuminated on the windshield. If the collision risk increases further without an evasive driver response, the system pre-charges brakes and an emergency brake-assist feature is readied for the driver to activate more easily.

The system also allows the driver to set and maintain the vehicle's speed while a radar monitors traffic ahead. This optional system automatically adjusts speed and slows the vehicle to maintain the set distance behind traffic ahead.

To test the system, the balloons play the role of the "target" vehicle, allowing Ford engineers to prove out the feature without endangering test drivers or damaging real cars. About a dozen balloon cars, weighing more than 40 pounds, are available in different sizes and designed to test the radar precision.

"We're looking at primarily the timing of these mechanisms," said Jeffrey Laya, supervisor of Core Active Safety Systems. "We're verifying that the warning occurred within a certain range of time. You design it with a certain warning time in mind, but then you have to go out to the track and prove it out."

Developed in conjunction with Ford's European research teams, the balloon cars allow the tests to be conducted in a far safer manner than if real cars were involved. And that's good news for engineer and test driver Mike Lopez. Driving into a vehicle – even a balloon vehicle – isn't as easy as it sounds.

"The first few times you drive into the balloon, it's scary," he admits. "You are deliberately driving straight into a stationary object that looks like a car, and it's against every intuition you've developed since you started driving."

In many situations, he said, the test driver is not supposed to brake.

"That's tough," said Lopez, who has test driven into literally hundreds of balloons. "A lot of first-time drivers can't not brake."

From a research standpoint, though, the experience is enlightening. The tarp-like balloons – filled with air and sturdy enough to be used multiple times – offer enough give to allow impact without injury.

"With the balloon, there's no deceleration in the vehicle upon impact – in other words, you're not thrown forward at all. It's a good way to observe what's happening at the instant before the impact," Lopez said. "The shocking experience is when you deliberately distract someone and wait for a warning to go off before they look up and apply the brakes. It is usually surprising how fast the impact comes after being distracted. It's a real eye-opener."

In order for the radar to better identify the balloons as real cars, the balloon is sometimes "tuned" before testing – shapes or reflective characteristics are added that radars or cameras will identify.

There are a few drawbacks to testing with balloons, both Laya and Lopez say – they've both spent their share of time chasing an errant balloon or two when testing in high winds. But the extra effort is worth it, they agree.

"What the balloon car allows us to do," said Laya, "is run these tests in a much safer environment. And for us, it's all about safety."

The Lincoln MKS sedan – which went on sale last summer with strong initial sales that helped Lincoln gain share in the luxury segment in the second half of the year – raises the bar on exclusive technologies offered in a luxury car. The Lincoln MKS features:

  • Active Park Assist, which uses an ultrasonic-based sensing system and Electric Power Assisted Steering (EPAS) to position the vehicle for parallel parking, calculate the optimal steering angle and quickly steer the vehicle into a parking spot.
  • Intelligent Access with Push Button Start, which allows the driver to enter the Lincoln MKS and start the engine without using the key. Drivers simply carry the special fob as they approach the vehicle, touch the keyless entry keypad on the B-pillar, open the door and, with the brake pedal engaged, start the engine by pushing a button.
  • SecuriCode™ Keyless Entry Keypad, which is the next generation of a feature familiar to many Lincoln owners. It allows access to Lincoln MKS by unlocking the driver's door by entering a pre-set five-digit code. The newest version is now flush-mounted to the B-pillar with backlit numerals that illuminate to the touch.
  • Adaptive Headlamps with Standard High-Intensity Discharge (HID) Lamps, which enhance nighttime visibility by illuminating more of the road ahead. Sensors monitor the vehicle's speed and steering wheel input to engage headlamp movement and increase the driver's field of vision.
  • Rain-Sensing Wipers, which use an optical sensing system to gauge precipitation and automatically activate and adjust the wipers. The Lincoln MKS driver can choose among five sensitivity settings.
  • EasyFuel™ Capless Fuel-Filler System, which provides a hassle-free and more consistent seal than a manual fuel cap. EasyFuel self seals when refueling is complete.
  • SYNC, which is standard on the Lincoln MKS. This award-winning voice activated communications and entertainment system developed by Ford and Microsoft fully integrates Bluetooth®-enabled mobile phones and digital media players into the vehicle.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 6 Years Ago
      Surely there's more to these balloons than the shape. They must at least have an accelerometer or two, right?
      • 6 Years Ago
      Sweet, can I get one for my Pool?

      I mean, I DID pay for part of it.
        • 6 Years Ago
        what exactly did you pay for on this? do you mean by being a ford customer?

        if thats a bailout joke ...as far as i know ford has not taken any bailout money ...so unless your a ford customer theres no way paid for part of it ....
        • 6 Years Ago
        So, there's no money from the "Stimulus" package that Ford would be getting?
        • 6 Years Ago
        Actually, you didn't. Ford has not yet accepted any of the "Bailout" money.
      • 6 Years Ago
      The male balloon attempts to pounce on the unsuspecting Lincoln MKS. Unfortunately for the balloon, the Lincoln has outfoxed it and prepares to feast on its kill. Lincolns and their Ford brethren are common around this region.

      After it has eaten enough, it will take the corpse back to the herd where the cycle will repeat.

      • 6 Years Ago
      3:17PM (2/10/2009)
      As flimsy as CAFE has made modern bumper covers and body panels, I have trouble believing these balloons do "no damage".

      You can hardly stand against a car without denting it now.

      "Not much damage", that I believe.

      First you make a stupid fricking statement the cost comes from union workers when they are made in japland

      And now this totally stupid that CAFE mandates federal laws on bumpers, body designs and standards.

      You have a clue what CAFE even means ?

      • 6 Years Ago
      It is really telling when Ford feels something like this is worthy of a press release.

      I see where they got Lincoln's new design language though...
        • 6 Years Ago
        You are the saddest person I've ever met, P. All day on the internet on every site you can find bashing Ford, all the while crying and masturbating on pictures of old Crown Vics. You're one pig who definitely didn't get to retirement with all his marbles. Troll...
        • 6 Years Ago
        Maybe they are trying to show innovative ways they are cutting spending while their crosstown rivals and even the Japanese car makers are asking for government money.

        If just a few of their press releases show the buying public that they are a responsible company finding ways to make the product development (and other) processes less expensive they will start to change the image that the American public has that they and their crosstown rivals are all dinosaurs ready for extinction.

        Now go tell your mommy that it's time for your nap, you seem cranky.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Lame attempt at humor by GM fanboy.
        • 6 Years Ago
        I'd bet Ford issues a lot more press releases than you think. They just don't get much (if any) news coverage unless the media deems it actually newsworthy. If you want to criticize someone for bringing up a fairly pointless story, point the finger at Autoblog.
      • 6 Years Ago
      As flimsy as CAFE has made modern bumper covers and body panels, I have trouble believing these balloons do "no damage".

      You can hardly stand against a car without denting it now.

      "Not much damage", that I believe.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Bumper covers serve no purpose except to cover the bumper...which takes all the grunt. I rear ended a car last winter and theres nothing but a tiny scrape on the BUMPER COVER. No other damage.

        And how thick do you expect body panels to be? With people already complaining about fuel standards in price, you want them to use thicker steel or more bracing and make the cars heavier? I have never leaned against a car and have it dent. Heck, I used to walk across the hood and roof of my Escort and never left damage.
      • 6 Years Ago
      10k? why can't you stack 6 air mattresses and tape them together?
        • 6 Years Ago
        Maybe the balloons have some sort of equipment or telemetry inside them that makes them more expensive.
        • 6 Years Ago
        I'm wondering this too. . . if this is just to test the cars' evasive maneveurs wouldn't a cardboard cutout be the same. . . and a whole lot cheaper?
      • 6 Years Ago
      So many experts on what this costs on here. Even if it cost $20k, it is worth not to destroy car after car testing their avoidance systems.

      And it looks like they don't buy very many so it probably was expensive as one-off or very low volume prototype stuff is very expensive, even from China. If they bought 100,000 of these a year, the thing would probably cost only a couple of hundred bucks.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Thank you!!!

        That MKS itself is probably worth close to $100k if it's loaded to gill with test equipment. Heck, it's probably more than that (not sure of those types of costs).
      • 6 Years Ago
      I might need to get into the balloon car business. What's the profit margin on those, $9,990?
      • 6 Years Ago
      The biggest question here is what it means to "charge up" the brake system. Brake systems are hydraulic. If you "charge up" that hydraulic system with pressure, you applied the brakes. Is that what they mean? The car applies the brakes for you? This sounds suspiciously like what we call "marketing".

      (Yes I realize that I missed the point of this post. Sorry.)
        • 6 Years Ago
        Regular cars with small brakes and weak wheel bearings frequently experience pad knockback during normal everyday driving, which translates to a little extra pedal travel before they engage. Precharging the calipers just means you push the pad up against the rotor enough to take up the slack. It takes a lot more pressure to actually slow down the wheel than it does to move the pad when it's not against the rotor, so there aren't any negative consequences of precharging.
      • 6 Years Ago
      the article is wrong.
      It´s not crash testing but car racing.

      The Rord tried to overtake the balloon in the first 2 images but the last image made it clear that the balloon won the race!
      • 6 Years Ago
      This wont help at all.

      You need metal because in real life it's metal your going to hit....
        • 6 Years Ago
        Not true. Fascias are not made of metal, people's legs are not made of metal, a wooden sign is not made of metal, etc.
        • 6 Years Ago
        By that logic crash test dummies must also be real people. Plastic hitting plastic isn't the same as flesh, muscle and bone hitting plastic. Amirite?
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