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The Globe and Mail

The art behind engineering how a car feels

The process of engineering a car is typically associated with technical concerns such as clearances and parameters, algorithms and linkages, ratios and capacities. But there's also the entire art surrounding how a car feels when you drive it; how all of these specifications meld together to create something that could potentially be exciting, reassuring and calming to drive – all at the same time.

This is the art behind engineering feelings, nothing more than feelings. It's also the pursuit that consumes untold development dollars and gives engineers sleepless nights.

The other problem: Not long ago, cars were engineered only to be driven – now, they're engineered to be driven and to drive themselves in certain situations. So there's a further challenge to consider: How do you engineer these "points of transition" between the driver having control of the car and the car assuming control of itself?

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The Infiniti Q50, introduced in 2013, represented a big move toward a less intrusive, more refined approach in driver assistance. "Earlier versions of our lane departure systems used the brakes to change the yaw of the car, providing a less sophisticated correction," Bert Brooks, senior manager of product planning for Nissan Canada, says. "The car now uses the steering system to make subtle adjustments, as well as provide continuous feedback into the driver's hands."

The topic of feel triggers another question: What is the feeling being engineered, exactly?

This is one of the challenges faced by Christoph von Hugo, the engineer responsible for the 2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class, which is billed as "the most intelligent car in the world." In developing this line of vehicles, the head of active safety and his team devoted countless hours of research and development to the driver assistance systems.

The feeling of how the steering wheel responds when the car veers into the next lane was just one area of focus. To replicate this feeling, the team at Mercedes studied the "hockey puck"-style lane markers that are common in Europe and some other parts of the world. "We engineer the car for how drivers would expect the car to feel if it goes into the next lane," von Hugo says. "The feeling of the steering is a representation of what drivers would feel if the car passed over a real section of road with lane dividers."

The Mercedes engineers fine-tune feeling based on exhaustive testing and retesting, beginning first with the engineering team itself, then moving on to other employees and, finally, customers themselves: "During development, the E-Class was driven over 1.5 million miles in total," von Hugo says.

A similar level of commitment is happening everywhere in the automotive industry.

Take Ford, for example. The lane departure warning and prevention system on the 2017 Ford Escape, dubbed "Lane Keeping Aid," is one of the most natural feeling on the road today. Kevin Schad, marketing manager for the Ford Escape, says this comes down to the fact that, like other manufacturers, the Blue Oval has been fine-tuning its game for years.

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"As we went from original versions of the system to where we are now," he says, "there has been a lot of progress in terms of refinement." Schad says that the system on the Escape is shared with a wide variety of vehicles in the Ford portfolio, including the Edge, Taurus, Focus and F-150.

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