How Ford used social media to design the Escape’s new hands-free liftgate

The hands-free liftgate of the 2013 Ford Escape is proving to be a popular feature, but if it weren’t for data analytics it might have looked very different than it does today.

Ford designers were actually considering multiple concepts for interacting with the car with a wave of the foot under motion sensors, including a “flip glass” feature that opened the car’s rear window. To decide which feature to implement, they went to Ford’s data team, and that team in turn went to an unlikely source: social media, Ford data scientist Michael Cavaretta said at Gigaom’s Structure Data conference Wednesday.

From there, Ford’s data group was able to ferret out the biggest pain points drivers face when trying to load their cars while loaded down with groceries or furniture.

“We made some very targeted pulls from some social media and some external data sources,” Cavaretta said. “We were able to aggregate those all together, and we were able to present them with the revelation that it’s about a 4 to 1 advantage – 4 to 1 people really want to have a power liftgate, and they don’t really care that much about flip glass.”

During his talk with Gigaom Research’s David Strom, Cavaretta detailed all of the different data sources Ford has been drawing from: sensors in its factories and within its cars as well as sales data that identifies the features most popular in its vehicles. Soon, though, Ford will get even richer data sets driven by the developer community. Its OpenXC program exposes vehicle information from car speed to whether the windshield wipers are turned on.

“We’re really interested in how people use that data that comes off our vehicles,” Cavaretta said.

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Photo by Jakub Mosur