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What is that new-car smell?

Sensitive noses of Ford's Smell Jury sniff out the good and bad of new car scents

Ford's Smell Jury evaluates the scents of various interior car components.It's common knowledge that auto companies have engineers who test how cars drive. But what about how they smell?

Apparently, car companies have special teams of people who do just that. Selected for their acute sense of smell, the group assesses the odour of interior materials, rating them on a standardized scale that determines whether the components give off an odour. From cup holders to air bag covers to floor mats to fabrics, the 'smell jury' puts them all on trial.

“Our goal is to eliminate any and all unpleasant odours in our cars,” said Sandra Edwards, a laboratory engineer who leads the odour team at Ford. “It all comes back to the ownership experience - we want people to enjoy being in their cars, not noticing or worrying about unusual and annoying smells.”

Edwards is one of five engineers from Ford's Central Laboratory's Polymers, Coatings and Corrosion Section who make up the smell jury.

Testing whether a headrest or steering wheel smells bad or not sounds simple. But it's not.

Parts that need a sniff test are placed in three-litre jars with specialized foam seals. Components are tested in three conditions - humid room temperatures, humid moderate heat and elevated dry heat.

The odour is sniffed, evaluated and rated on a scale of one to six. One indicates the odour is not perceptible. Six means the odour is extremely unpleasant.

Testing a single component typically takes one to two hours. After each juror has rated the specimens at each condition, it's time for a verdict.

If a smell doesn't meet acceptable levels on the scale, then the part or component is sent back to the supplier for further testing to determine the cause of the smell.

“Once we had a rubber part come through that smelled like cinnamon,” said Edwards. “Not that cinnamon is an unpleasant smell, it's just not meant for car parts. We sent it back.”

The jurors are all non-smokers. They can't have allergies or colds, because those tend to dull the senses. The same team of test engineers is used for most evaluations and includes a range of sensitivities: a person with a very sensitive nose and someone else who is less sensitive.

The jurors take this aspect of their job seriously. But that doesn't mean they can't have a sense of humour about it. Laboratory development analyst Michael Kelly was happy to have the opportunity. “I didn't turn up my nose at the assignment,” he said with a smile.

Posted Sept. 10, 2011. © Text and illustration: NAPSI.



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