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Virtual Reality in Car Design at Ford: Joel Piaskowski Interview

We caught up with Ford’s Global Design Director to see how his team works from home.

Todd LassaWriterManufacturerPhotographer

Time waits for no car design. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic stalls executive offices and assembly plants alike, designers and engineers have to keep their current programs on track, and simultaneously anticipate what kinds of cars and trucks consumers will want to buy when this is all over.

While Ford designers, like most salaried employees in the business, work from home these days, their directors are taking advantage of virtual reality equipment, using headsets to review future products and future product proposals to keep their programs on track.

We caught up with Joel Piaskowski, global design director for Ford's cars and crossovers, to learn more of how the VR initiative is working, and about what designers are thinking while working from home. Recent models designed under Piaskowski's direction include the new Ford Escape, and the upcoming Mustang Mach-E, though he's probably best known for leading design of the current Mustang.

Automobile: Every auto automaker is in a position now where there's the potential for product delays. Are we looking at a one-to-one offset where, say, a vehicle that was supposed to make its debut in six months now is delayed by two or three months?

Joel Piaskowski: I'm not at liberty to discuss future programs, but there is news Ford has announced that some of the programs are being delayed. And it's basically a month-for-month slip.

What's it like to rely on virtual reality equipment to design cars and crossovers?

JP: We had never done VR at home. This is really our first foray into that pool. But it works. It's a very effective tool. Obviously, it's just internet connection and some hardware. I've got a space set up, as do some of my colleagues within design leadership. One of our goals now is to start deploying more of these units out to our chief designers so we can have larger group design reviews.

How did you begin testing VR for design at Ford?

JP: The first wave was really only four: It was deployed to Moray Callum (design vice president), Todd Willing, who's my counterpart (global design director, trucks and SUVs), and Ian McLaughlin, who is our design technical (and engineering) operations director, and myself, obviously. We've been having our own internal reviews with our internal teams and then we've had one group review. And then also our directors in Europe and Asia Pacific have VR units as well … Amko Leenarts (design director for Ford of Europe) and Max Wolff (design director for Ford of China, and International Markets Group).

How many designers have it now?

JP: It's still very limited quantities. I think we're deploying five more units here in Southeast Michigan.

Meanwhile other designers are still working at home on their laptops and submitting design changes and proposals and so on?

JP: A number of the designers took all their hardware from the studios home. That includes the computer towers. Some of them have laptops, but most importantly they've taken their (Wacom) Cintiq tablets (a brand of sketch tablets).

Does everything automatically get pushed back?

JP: No, we're still continuing with our programs as if nothing has happened. Of course, the company is assessing all the programs and timing based on financials, but programs we're working on, we're still full throttle.

That means any delays would probably have more to do with the economy than the design staff? Are you putting in pretty much full days at home at this point?

JP: Oh, yeah. I think we're working as much, if not more.

And you have to work somewhat around the clock if you're also working with European and Asia-Pacific designers, if you're having reviews with everybody.

JP: What's funny is there really hasn't been much change in the creative designers' lives. We continue doing the global reviews. Sometimes we might have an evening review with Asia Pacific, but with our European colleagues we're able to pick those off in the first half of the day, our time. We really haven't missed a beat apart from just not having the hands on the clay model.

Do you miss rendering designs in clay?

JP: There's hope that we're going to get back into the studio, perhaps at a cadenced rate in the future as our stay-at-home bans are lifted and such. We're managing pretty well through the technology, and we've been using the VR technology in earnest for about two years now, but it's been in place for almost five. We've had the ability to assess it in VR compared to looking at a clay model, and the technology has developed and progressed and gotten so much better. The fidelity of what you're looking at in your goggles is much higher than even a couple of years ago. So that's proving to be a much more effective tool to the visual assessment. If push comes to shove, we can release surfaces and designs through our knowledge of virtual reality and knowing what we know with a physical model. But obviously a vehicle is something that's three dimensional. It exists out in the wild, so to speak. And we'd always like to have some type of physical prove-out to finalize our judgment. Once it gets down to final sign off, it seems like clay is never going to go away, despite all the advances in VR and in computer CAD design and graphics and so on over the years. You still have to get back to the office at some point, and the factories aren't going to open up and start building the prototypes until you do so anyway.

What would you like to have Silicon Valley do with VR to make it even better for automotive design?

JP: Just based on Moore's law, the technology will always increase and progress. We're able to get into a virtual environment. My colleagues and I have avatars of each other in that virtual space where we can see where each person is standing. For example, I can snap into Moray's position, can see exactly what he's seeing, or I can be separate from that. And I can use a laser pointer on these hand controls and point at an element on the vehicle where my colleagues can see it at the same time. All the tools are there. We have an environment of our courtyard in the Irvine studio out in California. It's a 360-degree digital photo of the courtyard, and that's an environment where we're able to put our virtual digital models into, so we can see those models spinning around on a turntable, we can move them around the courtyard. But it has the same environment, the same light source from that three-dimensional photograph. We get some super great lighting on the models and it looks very effective. We've got other scenes where we can put these vehicles in to do more like a sunset scene on a country road, or out in an open parking lot, for example. And there are a few others that we use regularly to give us a good assessment of different environments, different light sources. Just like what we would do in a studio courtyard. It actually gives us more opportunities for backgrounds and environments to review the design models.

Are you looking at one design at a time, or does this allow you to have two different designs and compare them side by side?

JP: We can look at one, we can look at two, we can look at five. It's really endless apart from the horsepower that the hardware can keep up with. But we will have anywhere from two to five vehicles that we can interchange, have in a courtyard at the same time for a comparison review where we can easily change the paint colors at a click of a button. In some ways it gives us more options to review and we're able to do that at a faster rate than preparing, for example, three or four clay models and getting them prepped and Di-Noc'd (surface-finished in a paint color), taken out to the courtyard. We can set them up, we can move them around, we can walk around them in the virtual space. We can change the colors, change the lighting and the environments. It's a very versatile tool that I think when we get back into some semblance of normalcy, I think we're still going to be using the virtual space probably more than what we've done in the past.  

Will you work at home more often, even after the pandemic is over?

JP: I think one of the things that we're all collectively missing is just the camaraderie of seeing each other and having that face to face. It's hard to understand tonality or you can't see people gesturing at what's what they're pointing at or talking about. In one regard it's a bit of a detriment working from home. But on the other regard we are proving out that we can do it. How sustainable it is? Maybe not as sustainable long-term, but maybe it's going to allow us to be a little more flexible in how we work. One thing we are seeing is people seem to be a little more productive working at home, and some of that might be a lack of a social distractions in the studio environment.

We've seen the Mach-e, and of course the new Escape is on the market already. Can you give any kind of sense of where you are in your cadence, in terms of future cars and crossovers?

JP: I can't tell you too much other than there's certainly a steady stream of products that we continue to work on, both North American and globally. There are still more exciting products that are in the pipeline. And we've also launched a new Puma (a new subcompact CUV) in Europe. So that's really exciting to see out in the wild.

Not to put you on the spot, but as a designer, a big part of your job is to figure out what the future will be. Do you have any early indications of what will be different in the industry when life returns, more or less, to normal, and how that will inform your designs?

JP: Just generically, everyone is probably going to be considering how does this pandemic affect what we design and develop in the future. How have customer needs changed or how will they change? One thing that we do at Ford is gather deep insights on customer preferences. We'll be talking to customers and seeing what's top of their mind going forward and develop that into our product development plans. It might be more feature-based or it might be holistic product changes… It's a bit premature to say one way or the other. A designer's role is to understand customers, their needs, desires, and wants, and then take that information and start working with the engineering community and product planners and marketing teams to collaborate on future products. Even though we're in perilous times at the moment, it's another opportunity for us collectively to bring more exciting products to customers that meet their needs while being inspirational at the same time.

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