Generally it is perceived that cars are bought on the basis
of their colour, shape, brand and design. That may be right but many buy a car
based on its smell too. In fact, smell is the most sensitive and powerful of
the five senses, and the one most tied to memory and emotion. It affects 75
percent of our daily emotions and can influence mood, well-being and pleasure.
Smells can create lasting connections between a brand and its customers.
The perfume industry has been built around this connection.
Fragrances are developed to evoke a range of emotions from desire to vitality
and relaxation. And who hasn’t been drawn into a supermarket or café by the
smell of baking bread or freshly brewed coffee?
Car designers are increasingly competing to deliver the
perfect car scent in each market. For Ford Motor Company, smell is a crucial
aspect of delivering high quality vehicles to customers. “Smell is one of the
most important factors when people buy a new car,” says Andy Pan, an engineer
who leads Ford’s Asia Pacific odor laboratory. “We test everything that goes
into our vehicles to ensure they look, feel and smell just right. It’s all part
of delivering the best customer experience to drivers and passengers,” he says.
Since 2008, Ford has been continually expanding its Asia
Pacific odour laboratory in Nanjing, China. Today, the team consists of 18
‘super smellers’, who conduct about 300 odour tests each year on materials and
components that go into its Asia Pacific vehicles.
Every year Ford runs an application process to select its
team of super smellers in China from across departments within the company and
they are asked to judge material samples in 16 jars.
“You can’t smoke or have allergies and sinus issues,” says
Mike Feng, a Ford smell tester for four years, adding that “Wearing perfume,
leather jackets or nail polish is also not allowed, and you shouldn’t use
strongly scented shampoo to ensure your senses aren’t compromised.”
Ford’s super smellers must requalify annually to maintain
their position on the panel and must be available to attend regular odour tests
throughout the year. A small group of six panelists form the smell jury for
each test and an average of their scores is given to each material sample.
“I’ve always been able to smell things before other people,”
adds Feng. “My colleagues say that I can smell what the canteen is serving for
lunch before anyone else,” he says.
Scents don’t smell the same to everyone – scientists put it
down to genetics – so Ford has odour
labs in the U.S., Europe and Asia Pacific to make sure its vehicles appeal to
customers all over the world.
“Leather is a challenging material as markets respond very
differently to it,” says Pan, adding that “Chinese customers can be turned off
by the smell of new leather. We need to be careful to select materials that
will please all international tastes.”
Everything used in a Ford vehicle – like seat fabric, plastics
or carpet – is odour tested. According to Ford’s testing criteria, materials
should have an odour that is perceptible, but not disturbing. If anything is
deemed too smelly, Ford works with the supplier to remedy the issue or explore
To test how a car will smell when it’s mass manufactured,
Ford tests material samples using simple domestic tools: glass jars and ovens.
It has repurposed ordinary three-litre glass mason jars – normally used to
store household items like pasta or dried beans – into mini environmental
chambers that can replicate real world conditions.
The material samples are scaled to their relative size in
the vehicle and put into the jars, which are heated in an oven to three
distinct temperatures: 80, 40, and 23 degrees Celsius. Testers add water to the
40- and 23-degree jars to create a humid environment.
“The materials used in our cars need to smell the same in
any condition, even on a very hot day,” explains Pan, adding that “Lab testing
during the development phase can weed out any unpleasant odors so there are no
surprises when the cars finally roll off the assembly line.”
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