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Ford ups the FX4 tech

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The Ford FX4 Special Edition is the manufacturer’s latest addition to its Ranger line of trucks. SEAN BACHER tries it out to see what makes the vehcile – and the tech – tick.

When 4×4 vehicles first hit South Africa’s roads they really stood out. But as good as they looked, they came with quite a few disadvantages.

The technology they used was somewhat basic so, although the increased ride height made the driver feel superior, it also meant a high centre of gravity, making them very easy to roll and difficult to stop in emergencies.

Secondly, many of them were simply rear-wheel bakkies with an increased suspension and a diff-lock system strapped to them. Although this was great for off-road, it made them downright lethal in the wet, as they would lose traction very easily.

However, decades later and with a lot of money invested in research, most of these problems have been ironed out. The perfect example of a safe, easy to drive 4X4 is Ford’s new Ranger FX4 Special Edition.

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The FX4 is available as a 3.2 turbo diesel double cab with a 6 speed manual gear box or 6 speed automatic and is based on the Ford XLT 3.2 litre double cab model. However, it includes a range of design tweaks both inside and out that turn it from a bakkie into a luxury, go-anywhere truck.

On the outside

A quick glance at the FX4 and one would recognise it immediately as part of the Ford Ranger family. However, upon closer inspection, little bits and extras make it stand out from the rest.

For instance, the front grill is borrowed from the Ford Raptor, making the car’s front end look monstrous. The side boards, or skirtings, add to the rugged look but also become a necessity when climbing in and out of the car due to its high ground clearance.

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At the rear, the FX4 comes standard with a tonneau and rubberised inlay to protect the exposed chassis from rust, sand, stones and other materials that may be loaded into it. The car also includes a tow bar.

The FX4’s large 17 inch wheels with black rims also make it stand miles apart from the standard Ford Ranger and many other 4X4s currently on the road.

On the inside

Many would think the inside of the car would bear the similar ruggedness that the car sports on the outside. In fact, it is quite the opposite. The FX4 cab oozes luxury, making it feel like one is sitting in a German sedan instead of a truck.

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For instance, the leather seats are electrically controlled, the steering column is height- and distance-adjustable, and just about every aspect of the car can be managed via the controls on the steering wheel.

The FX4 uses Ford’s Sync 3 infotainment system that allows the user to control the climate, navigation, Bluetooth, audio and various third-party services all from the centrally-placed, easy-to-reach and -read 8” touchscreen. If you can’t be bothered with using buttons to control the system, the voice control option comes in very handy.

Two permanently lit USB outlets are located just below infotainment system for charging phones and tablets.

Driving, or should I rather say parking, such a big car can be a daunting task for many. Admittedly, you don’t have to worry about scuffing the rims as the tires  will just drive over any pavements you may scrape along. Although you can probably reverse into another car without doing too much damage to the Ford, it’s not such a good idea – you know, insurance premiums and all that. Thankfully, a camera is fitted just below the Ford badge at the rear, with parking sensors making parking as simple as following the lines drawn out on the screen and listening to the beeps. A long beep with red bands on the camera outlining the car behind you probably means you are about to, or have already hit the car, and it’s time to haul out your cheque book. Unfortunately the FX4 doesn’t come with front parking sensors.

The heads-up display is standard in the FX4, with a speedometer in the centre, compass to the left and multi-display to the right showing fuel consumption, range, engine temperature and other vital statistics.

So how does it drive?

To see how well the Ford Ranger FX4 handled both tar and dirt roads, my sister and I decided to go camping in the Pilanesberg. That way we could get a good feel for how it handles the roads at speed, and at the same time do a little off-road in the game reserve. And, of course, get away from the hustle and bustle of Johannesburg and back in touch with the great out doors.

The first thing I noticed when driving on the roads was how high you sit. At first I was a bit skittish as it felt like the car was too detached from the road. I felt I didn’t have as much control as I would in a normal sedan. But I soon got over this as the car hugs the road just like any other modern vehicle. The powerful 3,2 litre turbo diesel engine made overtaking a breeze. The more I drove, the more my confidence grew. In fact, pushing the car over the speed limit just to get past the car or truck in front of me was as easy a punching the accelerator and knowing that there is more than enough power to get me past the cars safely.  Many other road users regularly moved out of my way, especially when they saw the menacing front grill in their rearview mirror. It almost felt like I was in command of a tank instead of a 4X4.

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The second thing I enjoyed were the potholes. Well, more to the point, they weren’t a problem, as the oversized wheels simply glided over them like they were little dimples on the road’s surface.

When the traffic cleared I was effortlessly able to get the car up to the speed limit and keep it there with cruise control – all managed via the buttons on the steering wheel. Simply push the set button and use the speed up and down buttons to adjust the car’s speed.

Overall, driving the car at speed on tarred roads was a pleasure. In fact, it was rather luxurious, thanks to the soft suspension. it was also fun, as I had time to play around with all the cruise controls, climate control and maps – all the time keeping my eyes on the road.

Although navigation via Sync 3 was very accurate, I found it quite finicky. Firstly, the maps that come with the FX4 don’t have many points of interest. For instance, Pilanesberg could not be found but Sun City could. Once the destination was found, I could only scroll to a certain point in the instructions menu to get a general idea as to where we would need to turn. And, even though there are turn-by-turn instructions, none of them were announced, meaning we had to keep our eyes on the display to make sure we didn’t miss any turns. That said, at the Mobile World Congress held earlier this year, Ford announced that all owners using the Sync 3 navigation system would be able to upgrade to the superior Waze traffic app. (Read the full article on Gadget here.)

In the Pilanesberg

Although most of the roads in the Pilansberg are tarred, the heavy rains made some of them only accessible via 4X4 – perfect for the FX4. Shrubbery and grass was also taller than usual, so where most visitors would be looking through grass to spot animals, the high ride of the FX4 afforded us the opportunity to see over the grass – and able to spot animals in the distance.

Making our way through the Pilansberg was plain sailing, even over muddy patches that most drivers would try their best to avoid. I did have a problem with the cruise control in that it will only activate at speeds over 40Km/h. Although this isn’t fast and is the park’s speed limit, it was far too fast for spotting animals.

The park offers a few look-out points that are marked as off-road and not suitable for any low vehicles. Although the hills are just over a 15 degree incline, they are over a kilometre long with several twists and bends. The incline, combined with the rain, meant that the hill was a combination of mud, water patches and smooth, slippery stones ranging in size from golf balls to mini basketballs – perfect for testing the FX4 without worrying about denting or breaking it.

Driving up in standard 2-wheel drive was impossible, as the car would go forward a few inches and then lose grip, with the rear wheels spinning madly and sliding back down.

Once in 4-wheel drive with the differential locked, the FX4 became a completely different beast. It trudged up the hill at its own pace with the rear wheels spitting stones and mud out trying to find additional grip, all the while the front wheels pulling the car up the hill. Admittedly, activating the diff-lock was overkill, making the Ford sound more like a tractor, but it just showed how much more the car could do.

At the end of the climb, the view was worth it and I thought the way down would be twice as interesting. However, on the centre console just next to the diff-lock button is Ford’s Hill Descent Control option. Simply push this and, once again, technology takes over, leaving the driver only having to steer the car. Once activated, it uses the ABS system to assign a different amount of brake pressure to each wheel, keeping the rear from swinging around and preventing the car from taking off in an uncontrollable descent.

Conclusion

The Ford Ranger FX4 is a 4X4, SUV and bakkie wrapped up in one luxury car. Its high ride height gives the driver a sense of authority on the road and its powerful diesel engine, coupled with Ford’s attention to detail both inside and outside, really reinforces that authority.

The sensors, camera and infotainment system are easy to use and, despite its size, the FX4 is easy to drive and park.

That authority and ease of use comes at price of R609 000 for the automatic and R594 000 for the manual version. On paper, those prices are rather high, but when you compare the FX4’s looks and price to its competitors, you will be surprised at how much more you are getting for that price.

* Sean Bacher is editor of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @SeanBacher

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Meet Aston Martin F1’s incredible moving data centre

The Aston Martin Red Bull Racing team faces a great deal more IT challenges than your average enterprise as not many IT teams have to rebuild their data center 21 times each year and get it running it up in a matter of hours. Not many data centers are packed up and transported around the world by air and sea along with 45 tonnes of equipment. Not many IT technicians also have to perform a dual role as pit stop mechanic.

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The trackside garage at an F1 race is a tight working environment and a team of only two IT technicians face pressure from both the factory and trackside staff to get the trackside IT up and running very fast. Yet, despite all these pressures, Aston Martin Red Bull Racing do not have a cloud-led strategy. Instead they have chosen to keep all IT in house.

The reason for this is performance. F1 is arguably the ultimate performance sport. A walk round the team’s factory in Milton Keynes, England, makes it abundantly clear that the whole organization is hell bent on maximizing performance. 700 staff at the factory are all essentially dedicated to the creation of just two cars. The level of detail that is demanded in reaching peak performance is truly mind blowing. For example, one machine with a robotic arm that checks the dimensions of the components built at the factory is able to measure accuracy to a scale 10 times thinner than a human hair.

This quest for maximum performance, however, is hampered at every turn by the stringent rules from the F1 governing body – the FIA. Teams face restrictions on testing and technology usage in order to prevent the sport becoming an arms race. So, for example, pre-season track testing is limited to only 8 days. Furthermore, wind tunnel testing is only allowed with 60% scale models and wind tunnel-usage is balanced with the use of Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) software, essentially a virtual wind tunnel. Teams that overuse one, lose time with the other.

In order to maximize performance within uniquely difficult logistical and regulatory conditions, the Aston Martin Red Bull Racing team has had to deploy a very powerful and agile IT estate.

According to Neil Bailey, Head of IT Infrastructure, Enterprise Architecture and Innovation, their legacy trackside infrastructure was “creaking”. Before choosing hyperconverged infrastructure, their “traditional IT had reached its limits”, says Bailey. “When things reach their limits they break, just like a car,” adds Bailey.

The team’s biggest emphasis for switching to HPE’s hyperconverged infrastructure, SimpliVity, was performance. Now, with “the extra performance of SimpliVity, it means it doesn’t get to its limits,” says Bailey. HPE SimpliVity has helped reduce space, has optimized processing power and brought more agility.

One of the first and most important use cases they switched to hyperconverged infrastructure was post-processing trackside data. During a race weekend each car is typically fitted with over 100 sensors providing key data on things like tyre temperature and downforce multiple times per second. Processing this data and acting on the insights is key to driving performance improvements. With their legacy infrastructure, Bailey says they were “losing valuable track time during free practice waiting for data processing to take place.” Since switching to HPE SimpliVity, data processing has dropped from being more than 15 minutes to less than 5 minutes. Overall, the team has seen a 79% performance boost compared to the legacy architecture. This has allowed for real time race strategy analysis and has improved race strategy decision making.

Data insights helps the team stay one step ahead, as race strategy decisions are data driven. For example, real time tyre temperature data helps the team judge tyre wear and make pit stop decisions. Real time access to tyre data helped the team to victory at the 2018 Chinese Grand Prix as the Aston Martin Red Bull cars pitted ahead of the rest of the field and Daniel Ricciardo swept to a memorable victory.

Hyperconverged infrastructure is also well suited to the “hostile” trackside environment, according to Bailey. With hyperconverged infrastructure, only two racks are needed at each race of which SimpliVity only takes up about 20% of the space, thus freeing up key space in very restricted trackside garages. Furthermore, with the team limited to 60 staff at each race, only two of Bailey’s team can travel. The reduction in equipment and closer integration of HPE SimpliVity means engineers can get the trackside data center up and running quickly and allow trackside staff to start work as soon as they arrive.

Since seeing the notable performance gains from using hyperconverged infrastructure for trackside data processing, the team has also transitioned some of the factory’s IT estate over to HPE SimpliVity. This includes: Aerodynamic metrics, ERP system, SQL server, exchange server and the team’s software house, the Team Foundation Server.

As well as seeing huge performance benefits, HPE SimpliVity has significantly impacted the work patterns of Bailey’s team of just ten. According to Bailey, the biggest operational win from hyperconverged infrastructure is “freeing up engineers’ time from focusing on ‘business as usual’ to innovation.” Traditional IT took up too much of the engineers’ time monitoring systems and just keeping things running. Now with HPE SimpliVity, Bailey’s team can “give the business more and quicker” and “be more creative with how they use technology.”

Hyperconverged infrastructure has given Aston Martin Red Bull Racing the speed, scalability and agility they require without any need to turn to the cloud. It allows them to deliver more and more resources to trackside staff in an increasingly responsive manner. However, even with all these performance gains, Aston Martin Red Bull Racing has been able to reduce IT costs. So, the users are happy, the finance director is happy and the IT team are happy because their jobs are easier. Hyperconvergence is clearly the right choice for the unique challenges of Formula 1 racing.

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Body-tracking tech moves to assembly line

Technology typically used by the world’s top sport stars to raise their game, or ensure their signature skills are accurately replicated in leading video games, is now being used on an auto assembly line.

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Employees at Ford’s Valencia Engine Assembly Plant, in Spain, are using a special suit equipped with advanced body tracking technology. The pilot system, created by Ford and the Instituto Biomecánica de Valencia, has involved 70 employees in 21 work areas. 

Player motion technology usually records how athletes sprint or turn, enabling sport coaches or game developers to unlock the potential of sport stars in the real world or on screen. Ford is using it to design less physically stressful workstations for enhanced manufacturing quality.

“It’s been proven on the sports field that with motion tracking technology, tiny adjustments to the way you move can have a huge benefit,” said Javier Gisbert, production area manager, Ford Valencia Engine Assembly Plant. “For our employees, changes made to work areas using similar technology can ultimately ensure that, even on a long day, they are able to work comfortably.”

Engineers took inspiration from a suit they saw at a trade fair that demonstrated how robots could replicate human movement and then applied it to their workplace, where production of the  new Ford Transit Connect and 2.0-litre EcoBoost Duratec engines began this month.

The skin-tight suit consists of 15 tiny movement tracking light sensors connected to a wireless detection unit. The system tracks how the person moves at work, highlighting head, neck, shoulder and limb movements. Movement is recorded by four specialised motion-tracking cameras – similar to those usually paired with computer game consoles – placed near the worker and captured as a 3D skeletal character animation of the user.

Specially trained ergonomists then use the data to help employees align their posture correctly. Measurements captured by the system, such as an employee’s height or arm length, are used to design workstations, so they better fit employees. 

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