DEARBORN, MICH. — DEEP in the Ford Design Center, in a room dimly lit by the flickering glow of video screens, a young stylist sketches out the shape of what may become the next-generation Ford Thunderbird.
As he sweeps an electronic ``pen'' across a drawing tablet, an image appears on his high-definition monitor. Moments later, a voice echoes out of a speaker nearby. ``I like that,'' says the disembodied voice of a colleague in Cologne, Germany. ``But what if we do it this way?'' he adds, as the newly-drawn fender stretches and bends.
Welcome to the brave new world of the Ford Motor Company, a place where national boundaries disappear.
On Jan. 1, 1995, Ford will ``blend'' its huge North American and European automotive units into the newly created Ford Automotive Operations (FAO). Ultimately, Ford hopes to slash costs by $3 billion or more a year and speed up product development by focusing its efforts on vehicles that can be sold, with little modification, to buyers worldwide.
``We're not simply changing lines on an organization chart,'' says Ford Chairman Alex Trotman. What Ford hopes to accomplish, he adds, will change the very way the company designs and builds cars.
Things have changed a lot at the design center over the last decade. Most designers have dispensed with paper and sketch directly on computer. Using the newest hardware - the same Silicon Graphics supercomputers used to make dinosaurs come to life in ``Jurassic Park'' - they can create three-dimensional models that can be ``lit'' and turned on screen, to look just like a real car.
The binary data can also be run through engineering simulations. In less than an hour, Ford engineers can ``crash test'' a new design to see if it meets federal safety standards. By normal means, it would take months - and hundreds of thousands of dollars - to build a prototype and smash it against a test barrier.
Under the new FAO organization, Ford is creating five Vehicle Program Centers (VPCs). Each will focus on a specific niche of the market. One of these ``platform teams,'' to be based in North America, will develop large, front-wheel-drive vehicles, such as the Ford Taurus. Another group, based in Europe, will handle smaller products, such as the Ford Mondeo.
That does not mean that everyone working on a specific vehicle will have to share the same office. In technological jargon, it is called ``virtual co-location.''
In the case of the styling studios, there will be small cameras and microphones mounted by most workstations. As our two designers in Dearborn and Cologne discuss their project, they will be able to see each other in a box displayed on their wide-format video screens. But the technology allows them to manipulate the same file simultaneously. So the German designer could modify an image drawn moments before by his colleague a continent away.
Similar technology will eventually allow Ford engineers to co-locate electronically. Virtually every Ford building is being equipped with video cameras and satellite dishes, allowing other team members to converse daily about everything from government regulations to marketing campaigns.
``There's an awful lot of horsepower and synergy in using the widespread talents available in Ford,'' Mr. Trotman says. ``And with the technology that's developing now, our capability to harness that synergy is improving almost by the day.''
Can technology really solve all Ford's problems? There will certainly be some challenges as the prototype of the new world car concept demonstrates.
The compact car line went on sale in Europe last year as the Ford Mondeo. In the fall of 1994, two more variations, the Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique, will make their debut in the US. ``Turf wars'' between the American and European employees delayed the project by as much as a year and played a role in the new car's $6 billion price tag, the highest in Ford history.
Designers and engineers will also face the problem of meeting the complex and often contradictory safety and emissions rules in the different countries.
Some observers worry Ford will wind up with the automotive equivalent of a camel if it tries to design a single vehicle for both German drivers, who wing their way down high-speed Autobahns, and American motorists, who plod along 55-mph freeways.
But while the basic chassis may be the same, there are major differences between the Mondeo in Europe and the American Contour and Mystique models.
``The only thing you'll combine are the parts and components the consumer really doesn't see,'' says analyst Chris Cedergren of the AutoPacific Group, adding that each car is uniquely styled. There are different features. Even the engines are different. Europeans, for example, will be offered a fuel-stingy diesel.
The cars being sketched out in the Design Center today will take at least four years to go from concept to customer. So it will be the end of the century before Ford knows for sure if the world is really ready for a world car.