Prototype vehicles, those carefully concealed and shrouded creations that grace the roads in various stages of development, have always been a source of fascination for automotive enthusiasts. They are the subjects of spy photos and speculation, often sparking heated discussions and endless curiosity. But what really goes on beneath the camouflage and mystery that surrounds these pre-production automobiles?
Recently, we had the privilege of joining Ford on a development drive for the highly anticipated 2023 Ford Ranger and Ford Everest. This journey took us deep into the Victorian high country, offering a unique opportunity to peel back the layers and discover the secrets of prototype vehicles.
The Journey Begins Long Before Production
To understand the enigma of prototype vehicles, it’s crucial to grasp that their creation is a process that unfolds years before the first physical vehicle is ever assembled. Modern advancements in computer design and simulation allow automakers to explore and refine design theories extensively without the need for immediate physical prototypes. This approach accelerates the development process and contributes to more refined final products.
Our previous exclusive revelations in May 2020 hinted at Ford’s ambitious plans for engines and interior technology. However, it wasn’t until July 2021 when we unveiled exclusive spy images that these plans were confirmed. While this process may not be unique to Ford, it sheds light on what transpires behind the scenes in developing a new vehicle.
The Art of Camouflage
One of the most striking features of prototype vehicles is their use of camouflage. Intricate patterns, paint, stripes, and wraps are applied to conceal the vehicle’s true contours. This not only keeps the design under wraps but also poses a challenge to photographers, making it difficult for them to focus on the vehicle as the camera searches for a contrast difference to latch onto.
In the case of Ford’s Ranger and Everest, additional tricks are employed. Wheel arch padding is strategically used to create the illusion of larger wheel arches, throwing enthusiasts and competitors off the scent. Depending on the prototype’s stage, it may employ the body of the outgoing model or use aftermarket LED lights while the final headlight or taillight design is being perfected.
For those curious about how headlights are concealed, it’s a clever process. Velcro headlight covers are used to prevent the design from being revealed. However, these covers must be functional, as the vehicle still needs to be roadworthy. At times, they are removed for testing matrix LED features, typically done at night at Ford’s proving ground in Victoria.
Decoding Prototype Markings
Test cars are often covered in coded stickers. While these may seem cryptic to the naked eye, they serve a vital role. These stickers are used internally within Ford to identify the prototype’s primary function. Some vehicles are solely dedicated to testing specific components, such as headlights, suspension, or aftermarket accessories. These stickers are the key to decoding a prototype’s purpose.
Beneath the Hood
Pop the hood of a prototype, and you’ll encounter a world of cables and accessories. Thermocouples, for example, are frequently installed to monitor engine components and accessories. These devices feed data to a logger that records vital information. In the event of a malfunction, this data becomes invaluable, aiding engineers in diagnosing and rectifying issues.
During our durability drive, one of the Raptors experienced a fan belt failure while ascending a hill. This particular vehicle was part of durability testing and had accumulated an impressive 150,000 kilometers within just six months. The data logger captured this incident, enabling the engineering team to pinpoint the cause and prevent it from happening again.
Innovative Concealment Strategies
Ford’s commitment to innovation extends to the art of camouflage. Engineers devised a clever method to hide the rear suspension details. By wrapping brush heads around the differential, they concealed the rear suspension’s secrets, showcasing the ingenuity that thrives behind the scenes.
Inside the Cabin: The Heart of Secrecy
Inside the prototype’s cabin is where secrecy reaches its peak. Preventing prying eyes, especially in the early development stages, is paramount. Take, for example, the Ford Ranger and Everest. The interior technology alone propels these vehicles to class-leading status. Revealing this information prematurely could prompt competitors like Toyota or Isuzu to alter their plans.
To maintain secrecy, Ford developed a system that keeps the interior covered when the vehicle is in public view. Protocol dictates that the interior must remain concealed during public drives or when passersby are present. To further hide the fact that Ford was employing a large vertical screen, each test vehicle featured a smaller opening at the top, creating the illusion of a more traditionally sized unit.
Prototypes also include unfinished panels with textureless plastics. These placeholders are in place until the final interior design is ready for further builds. For instance, Everest during the development drive lacked the wood finish found in the final production model.
The Data Logger and Emergency Stop
Inside the cabin, there’s an ejector seat-style button next to the driver. This button signals the data logger to record the previous 30 seconds of data in the event of an issue or malfunction. The captured data is then transmitted via the cloud to be analyzed by engineers. Additionally, Ford’s Sync 4 system allows engineers to record voice memos about functionality issues, which are also sent back to the base via the cloud.
A notable feature is a giant emergency stop button on the dashboard. When pressed, it immobilizes the vehicle by cutting off all electronics. Simultaneously, it triggers a data recording event. This button is reserved for catastrophic failures that render the vehicle inoperable.
Unveiling the Veil of Secrecy
Prototype vehicles remain a captivating enigma, a blend of innovation, secrecy, and ingenuity. As timelines and budgets grow tighter, the importance of pre-development work becomes increasingly evident. These meticulously concealed test vehicles represent the culmination of years of research, design, and engineering. They offer a glimpse into the automotive industry’s commitment to delivering groundbreaking vehicles that surprise and delight consumers.
Furthermore, this behind-the-scenes look highlights the significant investment in Australian design and engineering, particularly for products like the Ranger and Everest, destined for nearly 200 global markets. As we delve deeper into the world of prototype vehicles, the mysteries that surround them continue to intrigue and excite automotive enthusiasts worldwide.