Why subjective evaluation skills are essential to building cars that meet customer expectations and also fulfill their engineering purpose

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Subjective feedback remains invaluable in honing a vehicle’s character, but the selection and training of evaluators is an art in itself, Heider believes

The police officer looked nonplussed. My lengthy explanation about how I was evaluating this prototype vehicle to ensure it would meet the demands of its customers was clearly falling on deaf ears. Then, my ill-fated attempt to explain my slight speed transgression through the police officer’s jurisdiction took a turn for the better. The Scottish chap next to me leaned across my lap, regaled the officer with the same basic story I had told, and the officer became immediately more receptive. Thanks, Jackie – I still owe you one for getting us out of the incident. 

The above encounter occurred many years ago in Aberdeen, Ohio, in the middle of nowhere along the Ohio River. F1 world champion Jackie Stewart was to provide his input on the performance of these coveted prototypes of a new car model. It was an easy task for him, but an arduous exercise for the team, processing two days of non-stop feedback. 

Jackie was able to morph from his role as spokesperson into a training mini-empire within Ford based on a truism that is very difficult for engineers and executives alike to grasp: not everyone possesses subjective vehicle evaluation skills. 

Two additional corollaries are: no amount of training will improve those skills unless a person has a strong desire, proper mindset and willingness to learn, and senior executive positions do not immediately imbue
an individual with exceptional subjective evaluation skills. That unfounded belief in executive judgement permeates many companies and is extremely damaging and difficult to change, due to multiple historical, cultural and corporate issues. However, selection of the most suitable personnel to invest in, train and ultimately trust to perform subjective evaluations of any vehicle attribute is a more manageable task.

Despite the steady improvements in objective testing and simulation, subjective evaluations still constitute a critical piece of the development equation. Simply put, the human body is an extremely good data acquisition system, and the ultimate evaluation of a finished product is a paying customer’s subjective evaluation. 

Engineers tasked with fine-tuning the vehicle dynamics, NVH, powertrain and other customer-facing attributes must be extremely sensitive to performance in these areas, not only on a subjective expert engineering level but also from the customer’s point of view. In the customer’s mind, perception is reality. I once had a customer explain in detail how the acceleration of his new car was not nearly as strong as the outgoing model he had just traded in. During the drive with him, I did a wide open throttle acceleration to assess the vehicle’s performance. A stunned look on his face, he exclaimed, “Oh, I never do that. It’s too hard on the engine!”

NVH engineers have access to very good and quantifiable objective measurement tools, but with some critical subjective customer-facing attributes. OEMs strive to minimize certain unwanted noises in the interior, and these attributes can be accurately measured reasonably well. Powertrain sound quality, however, requires a different type of subjective assessment to complement the objective measurements. An NVH engineer subjectively evaluating a vehicle must be acutely aware of how the audible sounds reaching his ears will be perceived by the customer and the objective sound recording equipment, and how those evaluations are related. Mentoring, experience and training can be effective tools to develop very proficient NVH engineers.

Selection and training of vehicle dynamics attribute engineers is a more involved process. This attribute
is almost entirely about the vehicle’s character, with very few ‘less is better/more is better’ relationships. It requires skills not only in driving but also in evaluation, to complete many subjective and objective assessments. Some racing drivers have very good evaluation skills, some do not. Some development engineers have very good driving skills, some do not. At the intersection of very good evaluation skills, very good driving skills and a strong appreciation for the corporate and customer requirements for a vehicle, you will find the most effective vehicle dynamics development engineers.

Subjective evaluation is critical to the creation of exceptional vehicles. Choose your evaluators wisely and the result will be better-performing products in the eyes of the customer. 

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