Ford's market differentiator that won’t get your back up!

Apparently the wheels are always turning for Ford engineers, although sometimes they may be going in reverse. The gadget guys and gals at the automaker reportedly came up with the carmaker’s latest assisted driving feature on their downtime spent hauling and launching boats in lakes and recreational areas.

It was there that the engineers noticed a real-world problem and then set out to solve it – aiming to make it easier to tow and back up a trailer.

It may seem like a simple solution but it took nearly a decade to go from idea to installation in the dashboard. Ford claims it earned five patents for this technology and says there are 10 more pending.

Basically, Ford engineers noticed the amount of difficulty many people were having trailering, especially navigating the trailer while reversing up into the boat loading ramps or into their driveways after returning home.

Some drivers may not have much experience hitching a trailer and pulling it and get confused by the counter-intuitive nature of towing, which was identified as a major part of the problem. For those uninitiated in the joys of towing trailers or caravans, the driver has to turn the steering wheel in the opposite direction to where the trailer needs to go when reversing, so a right turn on the wheel sends the trailer left and vice-versa.

The solution the engineers created is called Pro Trailer Backup Assist; it seeks to figuratively remove this hitch from the equation. Ford claims it’s the first solution of its kind in the class.

Pro Trailer Backup Assist will be available on the forthcoming 2016 model F-150s but TU-Automotive was able to get hands on experience using the new feature at a recent demo day in Los Angeles as part of Ford’s recent Smart Mobility Tour, which stopped in several other US cities.

The F-150 was hitched to a Happier Camper HC1 in a parking lot. The button easily transferred the control to the Pro Trailer Assist dial, which then allowed for a video game-like experience.

Here’s how it works: the driver pushes a button which switches steering control from the traditional wheel to a much smaller knob more akin to a round dial controlling the volume on a home stereo receiver. At the same time, the truck steers the wheels and limits vehicle speed so the driver can focus all attention on steering just the trailer while the truck sorts itself out.

The dashboard video screen display was easy to see and gave a useful view of what’s behind you. Drivers can use the screen for navigating, which like many reverse assist features allows the driver to keep it between the lines and uses warning beeps for alerts if getting close to other cars or objects.

Navigating at a slow and controlled speed, novices and expert towers (who had never used such a function before) were all able to avoid the orange cones and swing the trailer around to the left while in reverse without hitting anything on either side.

A hard-wired camera avoids radio interference and offers a “Trailer View” on the dash screen. The camera reads a sticker on the trailer to help calculate speed and gives warning sounds to help the driver stay on target.

Each Pro Trailer Backup Assist system stores up to 10 trailer profiles, keeping track of trailer lengths, angles, and hitch to axle distances. All of this helps the truck know where the pivot point is in an effort to give confidence to neophyte boat haulers as they back down the ramp or into a garage.

This feature may not be a game-changer for many F-150 owners – and may initially pose problems for frequent haulers who have mastered the art of backing up trailers and are used to turning the steering wheel in the process but Ford executives see it as a useful feature since towing is a very popular activity with these vehicles. In fact, Ford says 35% of F-150 drivers tow at least once a month and many of them have boats, campers, and other large items hitched behind them.

The automaker expects the feature to cost between $400 and $600 (£260 and £390) depending on the package purchased.

Mike Levine, truck communications manager for Ford, told us the function differentiates the F-150 from competitors in its class: “Absolutely, there’s no other system like it.”

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