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Th!nk Different

Like it or not, the industry is invariably changing. Although Ford leads the world in selling comparatively large vehicles (i.e., pickup trucks), it is not overlooking the opportunities that are presented by something a whole lot smaller.

The challenge ofTH!NK is less one of design engineer/manufacture and more one of habit/opinion/baggage. Sure, there are demands that are being faced by the team of this not-well-known enterprise within the Ford Motor Company organization (no offense to the country, but this is an auto manufacturing operation that was established in Norway, so its comparative lack of visibility is understandable) vis-à-vis d/e/m (for example, looking for the means by which they can attain what Nick Palmer, global brand manager of the TH!NK Group, describes as "low-volume production with high-volume efficiencies": "Ford has a number of manufacturing operations in Europe, and so we know that there are things that we can use"—suspension, door trim among them).

 

2D Images
Obviously this is a small car. In fact the Th!nk city is just 9.8-ft long, 5.25-ft wide and 5.1-ft. high. And it is a not particularly fast car: 56 mph. But the concept behind this battery-powered vehicle is not that of one-vehicle-that-can-serve-all-conceivable needs. Rather, it is about simple mobility. From A to B, in effect (assuming that those two points aren't too far apart). For an increasing number of communities, it is the shape of automotive transportation to come.

No, those issues can be considered to be comparatively trivial in light of the h/o/b issues that are being faced as the TH!NK cars are being prepared for launch in the U.S. in 2002. (Right now they are on sale in Scandinavia; the city is being redesigned for sale in the U.S.-and speaking of the Scandinavian market in light of the low production reference in the preceding paragraph, it should be noted that in the first year of production [starting in November 1999 in the TH!NK Nordic AS factory, which is about 30 miles outside of Oslo], 250 units have been sold.)

Consider these specs:
Seating capacity: 2
Body dimensions: 9.8-ft long; 
5.25-ft. wide; 5.1-ft height
Curb weight: 2,075 lb.
Top speed: 56 mph
Acceleration: 0 to 30 mph in 7 seconds

In light of habit, that's small, too small, and slow, too slow, in a land of gigantic sport utes (with—ironically enough—the Ford Excursion being the most Brobdignagian of all).

There is a correlation in the minds of many that:

S = m + re
With
S being safety
m being mass
re being real estate

Another way of stating it: "Bigger is safer."

 

Ford on TH!NK

"We are the world's leading producer and seller of electric vehicles. We've just launched an entire new brand—TH!NK—dedicated to the development and marketing of alternative fuel powertrains and vehicles. TH!NK was established from the start as a brand that stands for true sustainable transportation. Not just zero emissions, but a target of complete recyclability and the use of renewable energy."

– William Clay Ford, Jr.
October 18, 2000
Convergence 2000 
International congress on 
Transportation Electronics

Palmer makes several points that essentially undercut the definitive linkage between size and safety, not only citing the TH!NK approach (he says that before the car is released in North America, "We will maximize safety." They'll be doing the necessary U.S. and Canadian crash tests; they'll be equipping the city with dual airbags; they will be working as diligently as they can to get as many stars as possible on their crash test rating), but noting that DaimlerChrysler is selling the SMART in Europe, which is a car that is actually smaller than the city, yet which has proven itself to be roadworthy (except for thosewho ascribe to the aforementioned equation).

What's more, Palmer observes, "Safety is not just about the ability to hit a brick wall. It's also about being able to avoid it." The city is designed for maneuverability, not only the ability to be slotted into parking spaces that would otherwise be impenetrable, but to allow the driver to drive defensively. Palmer explains that in large part this maneuverability is a function of weight distribution. He points out that when it comes to a race car, there are two things that the designers and engineers keep in mind. One is that weight is minimized. The other is that the weight is located where it is most effective with regard to handling. (And, no, he doesn't think that a car that's capable of a top end of 56 mph is a race car.) According to Palmer, the placement of an internal combustion engine either at the front or rear of a vehicle is not the most efficient with regard to handling. Central and low is a better position to place the bulk of the weight. Which is exactly what is done with the city.

The lower frame of the vehicle is steel, 90% of which is high-strength steel. The upper frame is extruded and welded aluminum. The body panels are polyethylene. The roof is ABS plastic. Not much weight there.

 


 

The TH!NK Lineup

In addition to the TH!NK city, there is another four wheel vehicle that is being made available: the neighbor, which comes in two- and four-passenger versions. This vehicle features an extruded aluminum space frame and thermoplastic body panels. The neighbor is somewhat smaller than the city: a two-passenger neighbor is 91.6 in. long and has a 65.5-in. wheelbase; the four-passenger version is 101.3 in. long with a 75.5-in. wheelbase. Both are 53.6 in. wide and 67.7 in. high. They, too, are electric vehicles, but employ six lead-acid batteries that drive a 5000-W DC motor that provides 65 ft-lb of peak torque at 1,500 rpm. The neighbor, which meets the new U.S. government FMVSS500 standard for low-speed vehicles, is, indeed, a low-speed vehicle: there are two speed settings: 15 and 25 mph (which makes it a veritable Cobra when it comes to moving on golf courses or through gated communities).

Then there are the two-wheel TH!NKs: two electric bikes, the fun, which has a rigid aluminum frame, and the traveler, which has a compact, foldable frame. These bikes make use of lead-acid battery packs.