Look, Ma, No Hands: An Engineer Brings His Cross-Cultural Creativity to the Ford Escape

While I was watching my alma mater, Mizzou, play South Carolina in football Saturday, a commercial caught my attention. (Actually, the commercial was one of the high points of the game for me, since the Tigers lost in convincing fashion.) The ad was for the 2013 Ford Escape and highlights its hands-free liftgate, which lets you open and close the back hatch by using your foot. This is possible because of a motion sensor under the rear bumper that is programmed to respond only to a kicking motion.

The feature is the brainchild of Ford exterior systems engineer, Vince Mahe, who was born in France and moved to the US at the age of 10. The Escape’s Facebook page says Mahe learned English from watching Sesame Street. Later, he became a fire fighter, then joined Ford, where he developed the “Open Sesame” feature. (Sesame Street. Open Sesame. Sounds like a theme.)

Chalk up another tally for creativity born from cross-cultural experiences. According to the commercial,

Vince Mahe grew up on two continents and noticed that wherever you go, people have their hands full but their feet free. The result, a liftgate you operate with your foot.

See here for yourself:

During a live chat, Mahe was asked how fighting fires helped him in is work at the auto maker. Mahe answered,

Being a fire fighter taught me how to keep calm under pressure and realize there is always a solution. You must keep your calm when collaborating with a team, especially under pressure. . . .

Another question concerned the transition between the two jobs. Mahe:

The transition to Ford was the same as other transitions I had in my life, like moving from France to the United States. It’s another adaptation I had to make in my life, but I have been happy with it. . . .

Of course, not all of the creative people at Ford used to be cross-cultural kids. (There are three other innovators who star in their commercials, with no mention of their backgrounds.) But it’s interesting how much Ford is stressing the effect that Mahe’s past experiences have had on his creativity and problem-solving skills. Here is Mahe explaining the relationship in his own words:

Ford is marketing the Escape outside the US, as well. But in other countries, it is being sold under the name Kuga. Their global strategy also means that Ford is paying attention to place-specific details in the Kuga’s design. One of these variables is color, and Ford is introducing a “global colour”—a “subtle green”—they’re calling Ginger Ale. “Choosing the right colours is crucial, wherever the car is being sold,” says Serife Celebi on Ford’s media site. Celebi, the colour and material design supervisor for Ford of Europe, adds, “Ginger Ale is stylish enough to suit urban landscapes across the world and still have a playful edge.”

Regional factors also affect the planning for interior colors: Ulrike Dahm, colour and trim supervisor, Ford of Europe, says,

In Asia, lighter interiors are more desirable. Many people live in huge cities where space is at a premium, so having a light and airy interior is seen as luxurious. In Europe, colours and trim take a lot of influence from the tech industry and are generally darker. Gloss black is a popular choice.

Maybe the same kind of attention to cultural tastes was not given to the SUV’s name, which has been used by Ford outside the US since 2008. I didn’t find any explanation from Ford for the origin of the name, but several sites point out that kuga is a Serbo-Croation word for “plague.” No word on whether that has affected sales in Serbia and Croatia.

(“Trend-Spotting on a Global Scale: How Ford Designers Tailored All-New Kuga to Suit Customers Worldwide,” media.ford.com, April 19, 2012)

[photo: “2013 Ford Escape,” by Automotive Rhythms, used under a Creative Commons license]