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Q&A with Richard Parry-Jones

By Dave Leggett | 30 June 2010

Richard Parry-Jones on the success of the original Ford Focus: That car was much more engineering led than finance led. That doesn’t mean that the development process was financially irresponsible – there were clear targets to be met - but the judgements were made by people with deep technical knowledge rather than by people relying on other people’s deep technical knowledge. There’s a big difference there.

Richard Parry-Jones on the success of the original Ford Focus: 'That car was much more engineering led than finance led. That doesn’t mean that the development process was financially irresponsible – there were clear targets to be met - but the judgements were made by people with deep technical knowledge rather than by people relying on other people’s deep technical knowledge. There’s a big difference there.'

Richard Parry-Jones is best known for his time as an automotive engineering leader at Ford. Until his retirement from Ford at the end of 2007, he spent nearly ten years as Group Vice- President in charge of R&D for all of Ford and its subsidiary companies worldwide, leading a staff of 30,000 professionals in a network spanning 15 countries. The much lauded 1998 Mark 1 Ford Focus emerged under his guidance. He now runs his own technology consulting company and provides policy advice to governments. He chairs the UK government’s ‘Automotive Council’. Dave Leggett caught up with him to hear about his product development philosophy and how Sir Jackie Stewart pointed him in the direction of the '50-metre' test.


This is the first part of 2 part interview that first appeared in Lotus Engineering's proActive e-magazine.

Dave Leggett: How are you spending your time these days?

Richard Parry-Jones: In the past two years I have stopped working full-time, which was all part of my plan, and I now spend just over half of my time working. There are three main areas where I am working: one is the public sector; the second is non-executive directorships; and the third is my technology consulting company.

The public sector work is mostly developing policy advice for governments – both the UK government in London and the Welsh Assembly Government in Cardiff. The portfolios I cover are manufacturing and specifically the development of the automotive industry in the UK, energy policy, economic policy and transport policy. I am essentially a policy adviser in those areas and I do find the work very interesting.

The other work I do in the public sector is with universities. I have been a visiting professor in the department of automotive and aeronautical engineering at Loughborough University for a number of years. I am continuing in that role, providing occasional lectures, tutorials and also advice on course development. I am also a member of the advisory council for Warwick Business School and also the advisory council for the Liverpool John Moores University (working on a programme called World of Work – WOW – making undergraduates more workplace-savvy and therefore employable).

I have also just joined the council of Bangor University in North Wales and I am gradually increasing my involvement with them (I was born in Bangor and I have moved back to live in the area).

Non-executive directorships include being a member of the board of GKN plc. I am also a member of the supervisory board at a German company called Odersun, which makes clean technology devices.

I also set up my own consulting company when I left Ford, so that’s been running for about two years now. I have a growing client list and turnover. Interestingly enough, I have been able to expand my client portfolio well beyond the automotive sector to general engineering and technology consulting – for example, advising the investment community on the attractiveness of new technology innovations.

There is obviously some consulting with automotive companies, but I have gone as far afield as the energy sector and the civil engineering sectors, working on broader strategic issues that involve the marriage of technology and business.

DL: And how are you filling the half of your time that is not working?

RP-J: I am something of an outdoor sports fanatic. I do sea-kayaking, sailing, jet-boats, mountain biking, motorcycling, backpacking and I’m also still active in motorsports (Fiesta ST rallying). Cooking is also a big passion of mine. So there’s plenty to keep me occupied outside of work.

DL: Looking back at your Ford experience, what would you pick out as key developments that you were involved with on the engineering side?

RP-J: A lot happened in the industry over the 38-year period that I was there. Of the things that stand out, probably the biggest was the introduction of digital electronic control. It was zero when I joined the industry but it is utterly pervasive now. It has got to the point now where we carry more lines of code in a car now than in an aircraft and far more than in a PC.

What we have been doing as engineers is to harvest the results of Moore’s Law as it applies to microelectronics. This has reduced the cost of processing power to allow us to interfere with hydroelectro and mechanical systems, which are essentially linear, to create desirable non-linearities at relatively low cost. More recently digital electronic control has been used for autonomous closed loop control of many vehicle systems.

I specialised in control in my degree course, so it’s interesting that that became extremely useful throughout in my career.

That’s probably the biggest single thing but of course there have been massive changes in other areas and two stand out: The increasing importance of safety and the environmental impact of cars. Both of these things have been driven by the incredible popularity of cars – which have been subject to much improved reliability and affordability. The real cost of motoring has been dropping inexorably over time, despite the best efforts of governments to penalise motorists through punitive taxes.

Reliability has got to the point now where most people don’t really worry too much about reliability, in the sense that they used to – there is an industry standard that has been getting steadily better. Cars are much more reliable mechanically and electrically than aircraft and they remain in service now for about 16 years and that number is increasing by a year every four or five years.

So the cost of motoring to the average motorist – who is not a new car buyer – is dropping even faster because of the incredible value for money offered in the used car market.

The big enablers have been the rising productivity and efficiency of the industry. Global competition has driven the cost of motoring down. Reliability has made motoring a preferred choice rather than a risky choice.

That incredible popularity has brought with it challenges of safety and of the environment and the industry’s technological response has been impressive.
Under the broad heading of safety we have structure, restraint systems and accident avoidance. Structural innovation has been accompanied by the deployment of very sophisticated restraint devices.

Take for example the number of airbags that a car has nowadays. With the Ford Mondeo in 1992, that was the first mass-market car to standardise an airbag on the driver and passenger side. Now, you typically get between six and ten airbags on a modern car as standard. And beyond that, seatbelts have become very innovative. I have worked, for example, on a device that we have just launched in America under the Ford brand called the ‘inflatable seatbelt’.

The innovation continues with the increased development of accident avoidance systems, Under the broad heading of ‘the environment’ we started off with the concern over smog formation which led to the development of the three-way catalytic converter. Then came the more macro concern over possible destruction of forests through acid rain, so further stringency was added to tailpipe emissions regulations. This was followed by concerns over particulates and their effects on respiratory diseases.

Now of course, we have the concerns over the most ‘non-local’ emissions of all – carbon dioxide.

Despite initial reservations, challenges and opposition, the industry has responded spectacularly with some very clever technology each time regulations have been tightened up.

The first three-way catalyst system cost US$145 more than having no tailpipe emissions equipment at all. The latest systems that are on cars in the US emit
emissions of CO2, hydrocarbons and nitrous oxides of less than 1% on what was allowed under the 1973 regulations. And the cost of the system that delivers
that degree of improvement is just US$142. I think we sometimes underestimate the power of continuous improvement in terms of innovation. We’ve got a system that gets rid of 99% of what used to be allowed at no more cost to the consumer.

DL: When you look back at your Ford time, is there any one model that stands out as a gamechanger in terms of the product development process leading into the quality of the end-product, driving dynamics, benchmarks and so on?

RP-J: Of all the cars I was involved in the one that absolutely stands out for me is the original Ford Focus. That was in many ways my team’s expression of everything they had learned about car design. It changed standards in the class and in adjacent classes. We all felt very pleased with the outcome – it won all the awards going, it was produced and sold all around the world, customers loved it, it became the benchmark for many competitors’ engineering teams and it still looks fresh and drives well today.

DL: What factors can you identify that produced that outcome?

RP-J: As always, lots of factors. Ford has a fantastic team of engineers, and the ambitious setting of goals, the engineering process, the culture, the team – and particularly the selection of the team leaders were all important. But crucially, I also had the unwavering support of Senior Management colleagues, who shared by ambition to fundamentally change the type of vehicle that Ford produced – from a company fleet vehicle solution provider to making cars that are much more desirable to look at, to own and to drive.

That car was much more engineering led than finance led. That doesn’t mean that the development process was financially irresponsible – there were clear targets to be met - but the judgements were made by people with deep technical knowledge rather than by people relying on other people’s deep technical knowledge. There’s a big difference there.

The other thing is to be confident – or even courageous – enough, to set very high standards and not to compromise when the going gets tough.

The differences between a great and just very good car are often just a few percent, in terms of measurables. And you have to get everything working ‘just right’ as opposed to nearly everything working about right.

DL: Are the compromises that might get made in the development process typically about time and particularly the trade-off of time – to get something perfect – and the cost budget?

RP-J: I think many companies and products suffer from having not pushed hard enough on the product and allowing the incredible pressures of time, budget and compromise to influence too many decisions. For example, the control blade rear suspension we adopted on the Focus was more expensive than the industry norm of torsion beam axles, and it was more risky, but it was absolutely crucial to giving us a rear suspension with a level of grip and response at the rear that allowed us to do some completely different tuning at the front of the car that created that special feeling when you drove the Focus.

My argument would be that you mustn’t become so obsessed with perfection that you forget all about the commercial issues, but you have to get to the point where you know that the engineers can’t do any better, as opposed to saying they can’t because they are just tired out, or they are worried about budgets or whatever.

You have to be quite strong because the pressures in any organisation are incredible to compromise. I’m just a bit more difficult to persuade to compromise
than some other people.

I have been accused of a tendency to spend a bit of extra money, but my response has always been that if you want to raise the revenue outcomes of your products, then you need to invest in a reason for your customers to pay a little bit more. And that can take time in terms of the brand perception and consistently delivering a premium product, so that eventually customers think that it is worth paying a little bit more for a Ford because a Ford cars really are better.

And I believe the Mk 1 Focus had a lasting impact on the way people viewed Ford in Europe and I am very proud of that. By the way, it was a huge team effort on that car. There were more than 800 people directly involved in that car’s development, so I don’t want to exaggerate my role.

DL: Can you identify other models that you were very happy with, in terms of their development?

RP-J: There were a lot of models I was involved with that I was very pleased with. I was very, very happy with the Land Rover Discovery 3. That was another perception-changing model. The Range Rover at the time was largely engineered by BMW and it did a fantastic job of raising the premium, almost unassailable position of the Range Rover in the market. I think many people thought – after we had acquired Land Rover – that we wouldn’t be able to do a job anywhere near as good with our own developed model. But I think we really surprised everybody with how fundamentally brilliant Discovery 3 was.

And I think recently the Jaguar XF has been another very, very good model. I was very pleased with the work that the team did on the XF. Not only is the XF a model that is working to change perceptions of the brand and take Jaguar to a new audience, but the engineering team at Jaguar had been raising their game for some time before that, honing their skills, and I think it came together very well with the XF. It was also the first Jaguar to use a new product development process that I had been developing worldwide and that seemed to work very well.

DL: What do you think went wrong with the X-Type? Was it the execution or the perception that it was sharing parts and platform with the Ford Mondeo?

RP-J: I think the X-Type was actually an extremely good car. The idea of doing a premium car and using some of the parts kit from volume models was not new when we did the X-Type and wasn’t unique to Jaguar. It also been tried successfully many times since. The criticism that the X-Type was drawn partly from a set of parts from the higher-volume but rather excellent Mondeo is misplaced – you may as well level the same criticism at Audi for any VW parts they have used. I really don’t think that’s the issue.

And I think the team executed it pretty well. It handled well, steered well. It was reasonably refined. But I don’t think the design craftmanship was quite at the level that was needed at the time, despite the fact that the Halewood plant did a wonderful job with that car.

But I think the real reason why the X-Type didn’t take off and earn its way into people’s hearts the way we hoped it would, was actually appearance. The design was too conservative. And for a smaller, less expensive and more affordable Jaguar, instead of making it look like an older person’s car that you could now buy more cheaply, I think we would have done better by being bolder and more contemporary with the styling. Then it would have appealed to a new audience, rather than the existing audience or an audience that had always hoped to own a Jaguar but never thought they could afford it, but suddenly realised they could.

With the benefit of hindsight a bolder and more modern design could have said, ‘Hey, you know what? Jaguar is also a youthful company appealing to youthful  people with a contemporary design.’ And then I think we would have heard very little of the other criticisms.

DL: And now it’s going the other way with bolder designs, like the XF and XJ?

RP-J: Yes, that’s right. The X-Type was part of an attempt to grow the company very fast and, as that did not work out economically, then obviously the model for the business has to change, at least for a while, and that’s why we’re now seeing a heavy emphasis on progressive, bold design, craftsmanship and premium materials along with clever technology.

Part of the reason why Jaguar was tempted to go down the ‘design cloning’ route was that the competitive environment at the time showed that was the approach successfully used by companies like Audi, BMW and Mercedes. They all basically had a house style with different sizes of vehicle. Jaguar’s approach was actually following the mainstream premium brand trend, so it seemed plausible at the time. The difference was that the audience who had bought in to the Jaguar house style up until that point was a) too small and b) rather mature – if I may use that word.

DL: How do you define ‘craftmanship’?

RP-J: It’s a lot of things – a combination of design, materials and geometric fit. Many of those things were done very, very well but at that time Audi, and to a lesser extent BMW, were setting the standard. And when you introduce a new model into a new segment and you’re trying to break the mould a little bit, it’s not good enough to just be as good as the competition, you have to be better to give people a reason to buy you rather than the established choice.

DL: We have already touched on aspects of this, but what do you see as the key principles that produce good cars, from an engineering point of view?

RP-J: The answer to that question can vary according to the market or segment you are aiming at. First and foremost, the car has got to be utterly dependable. It has got to provide good value for money – that doesn’t necessarily mean low price; the customer has to feel they are getting a really good deal and it doesn’t mean getting a discount. It means being so pleased with the product itself and taking delight in it in various ways, that they feel they have made an excellent purchase. That feeling should not only be driven by novelty, it should be driven by depth, depth of competence.

And the car has to look good. It’s either got to look fascinating or interesting,  exciting, or it has to look really contemporary, cool. The appearance has to denote quality.

Customers have no means of assessing quality in a technical sense. What they do, and what we all do, is shut the doors, fiddle with trim, ping the mirrors, feel the materials, hit the switches and depending on how solid or flimsy or noisy the car is, they will draw conclusions about some of the things they can’t assess, like the wheel bearings, say. The car has to be designed so that it communicates quality visually, aurally and tactilely.

And when you actually open the car door, it has to be inviting. In that it is interesting – you want to find out more. Or it is inviting simply because it looks supremely cosseting, comfortable and convenient – easy to use.

And exactly how you configure all of that has to match your buyer and the segment the car is in.

I always do a test when someone shows me a new car – I open the door and I stand there. I look at it and I ask myself the question: do I want to get inside and find out more? If the answer is ‘no’ I’ll stop the review at that point and I’ll say, ‘I will get inside in a minute, but I want to tell you we need to do more here, here and here, because at the moment I, as a potential customer, don’t want to get inside, it’s not interesting enough.’ And once you are inside, then we’re into the ergonomics, seating position, sense of space and the feeling of connection between you and the car.

After that, we are on to my ‘50-metre test’. We should be able to tell after driving the car at low-speed for 50 metres whether we have a brilliant car or just a good car. And that is all about how the controls respond and communicate to you what the car is doing.

DL: Were people doing anything like that 50-metre test before you suggested it?

RP-J: I am not sure anyone in the industry was doing it. People tend to see a prototype, jump into it as small horns start growing out of their heads and they drive immediately flat-out. I learned a lot about this from Jackie Stewart – I didn’t wake up one morning with a brainstorm. I was lucky enough to work closely with him in the very early 1990s and we spent quite a lot of time together in cars. I learned a lot about driving from him, as you would expect, but I also learned a lot about understanding vehicles.

One of the key things he taught me was: don’t rush it, take it easy, spend time at the beginning. Don’t even drive away for 20 minutes while you are understanding the car from a static perspective. And then when you do drive away, do not allow your enthusiasm or sense of urgency to get the better of you. Gradually build up your speed, and treat the controls very gently. One of the little things that makes a car good is the question of freeplay when you press the throttle pedal and before the car starts to move. Sometimes that freeplay might be only 5mm but that is 5mm of backlash that is a barrier to you and your car having perfect harmony.

If you are not preparing yourself mentally to understand whether that 5mm exists or not and you just get in the car and floor the pedal on your first drive, you will never find that problem.

But you will find it in the first 50 metres – are the controls nicely weighted, are they linearly progressive, lacking in lash, are they communicating, are they helping my driving? Or are they giving me a series of challenges?

DL: Do you think that kind of approach has become an industry standard now?

RP-J: I don’t know about other companies, but I know that at Ford it is still a term and practice that is used.

DL: I guess we know that bad cars still get produced, so for all the improvements to quality industry-wide that you mentioned earlier, some companies are better at producing high quality cars than others.

RP-J: And it could be of course, that in some companies the engineers are doing things like the 50-metre test, but there are other pressures that mean perhaps these things are not being paid attention to in the decision making process. It’s about detecting problems, developing a fix and following through, even if it is hard work and more work. There are many possible causes for that particular failure mode.