Ford engineers are working on electric Mustang SUVs in their own garages


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The first SUV ever to carry the Mustang name, the Mach-E was unveiled to the public in November. With an emphasis on affordability and performance, the electric crossover is seen as Ford’s attempt to take on Tesla. At the time, Ford said the Mach-E would go on sale by fall of this year. But a few months later, on March 13, the pandemic spurred Ford (F) to order its employees to start working from home.

So Kapur and her colleagues brought home more than a dozen pre-production versions of the Mach-E SUVs, as well as computer equipment and other gear so they could keep working from their basements, living rooms, garages and neighborhood streets.

There’s still a lot of work left to be done to get the vehicle ready for production by the deadline — but no one intends to miss it.

Kapur is a calibrator. Her job is to make sure all the computer software controlling the Mach-E’s electric motors responds as it’s supposed to, under every conceivable circumstance. If done incorrectly, the vehicle might not start and stop smoothly, struggle over different types of terrain, or some parts might overheat or malfunction in extreme weather.

“There are like thousands and thousands and thousands of lines of code written so that way we can optimize the vehicle to respond properly during all these different situations,” Kapur explained.

Ford engineer Aleyna Kapur in the driver's seat of a Ford Mustang Mach-E test vehicle with a laptop to record data.

It’s one thing for a consultant or a journalist to work at home when all that’s needed is a laptop, a phone and an internet connection. But Kapur and her colleagues are working on a roughly 4,500 pound SUV with battery packs holding up to nearly 100 kilowatt hours of energy.

The Mach-E is the first Ford model designed and engineered purely as an electric vehicle. Previously, Ford’s electrics have been electric versions of vehicles that were also sold with gasoline engines.

Kapur said she spends, on average, about half her time working at her desk and the other half driving the Mach-E around her neighborhood while recording streams of performance data. It varies, though, from days when she never leaves her desk to whole days spent in the Mach-E.

“Generally, I would say, I’m in the vehicle at least once a day, but there’s still quite a lot that we get done online,” she said.

The computer she uses at her office is far more powerful than what she has at home, she said, but she can still use a secure Internet connection to access that office machine for more demanding data analysis.

Before the pandemic, when Kapur and her team were working at the office, anyone could jump into any test vehicle. Some of the Mach Es are rear-wheel-drive, some are all-wheel-drive and some have larger, more powerful battery packs than others. Each version requires different software calibrations.

Now, with everyone working from home, each test vehicle is in a different driveway or garage, meaning communication is crucial. Team members must ask one another to run specific driving tests if they need data from a version of the Mach-E they don’t have.

“A lot of times we’re able to, like, go around the block,” she said. “And most of us who have a vehicle are using it to do any sort of necessary errands.”

Other engineers are working on the Mach-E’s “infotainment” systems, the internal computer screens that have controls for navigation, entertainment and climate settings. They brought home desktop mockups that include the Mach-E’s long vertical screen with a circular knob installed at the bottom. They can operate them at their desks as they would in the vehicle.

A Ford employee working on the Mach-E's infotainment system has a mock up of the system on his desk at home.

The designers and engineers working on the Mach-E can be thankful the stay-at-home orders came at this point in the Mach-E’s development process. The so-called pre-production vehicles, largely hand-built examples, had already been made. For the most part, the Mach-E just needs some refinements.

But there were some tests that required a test track. Even as Michigan was shutting down, Ford was able to shift some of those tests elsewhere, said Darren Palmer, Ford’s electric vehicle development programs.

“We’ve got facilities all over the world,” said Palmer. “And as the different places have different effects from coronavirus we were able to make use of those facilities.”

Once this is all over, there remain other crucial tests, like crash tests, which need to be done in controlled environments. With computer modeling, the tests should mostly confirm what the engineers already expect, Palmer said, based on having run virtual tests on computers. Still, the real tests must be done.

“You must do that check,” he said, “but you don’t expect that you’re going to get much change required from those, anymore.”

While waiting for access to those test environments, the engineers and designers are working on what they can do from home. Some work is getting completed faster, Palmer said, since people have access to their computers and vehicles at all hours. Employees are driving their test Mach-Es on the weekends when they wouldn’t normally have access to them.

However, if the coronavirus lockdown lasts longer than expected, the start of Mustang Mach-E production in the fall of 2020 might need to be delayed, Ford has said.

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