John Carl Faust, the son of a drill sergeant, never served in the U.S. Army but the military has been a big part of his background and shapes what he does even now.
The engineering psychology expert spent years as a civilian working beside an elite team of Iraq War veterans to design military vehicles to improve how they're used and maintained.
His contribution wouldn't be on the battlefield. But it would help protect those who were.
And now he is applying what he has learned at Ford Motor Co., most recently in the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport. The off-road compact sport utility vehicle, designed to challenge the Jeep Cherokee and dominating sales in 2021, has invited scrutiny from anything and everyone trying to figure out the winning recipe.
Faust, 56, of Farmington Hills, spent 11 years at General Dynamics in Michigan as a "human factors" engineer — someone who has psychology training and knowledge about human abilities and human limitations relevant to design and uses that scientific research to improve technology, consumer products, transportation.
Ford hired Faust six years ago and he has spent most of that period working on the Bronco Sport.
He understands how people work, mentally and physically, and how machines work, and how they interact. Previously, he was a member of the pit stop engineering team that focused on designing vehicles that could be fixed quickly and put back into battle.
Faust left the military defense industry supplier but he didn't leave behind his focus on military design when he started working on the Bronco Sport.
He offers a glimpse at how Ford managers decided not to kill an unusual feature that industry analysts say never should have made it into production — too cool and not essential. Plus, he offers a peek behind the curtain at overall design strategies.
Designing around the sun
Faust's team is responsible for all sorts of design elements inside the vehicle. For example, the group evaluates the legibility of text on displays — making sure the size of letters are designed large enough and the display contrast is bright enough so drivers of all ages can see the information.
When sun is pouring into the vehicle, Faust and his team make sure the center display is positioned so that information is not washed out — so a driver can see a clear image of the screen no matter what the sun is doing.
"We also work to position the (instrument) cluster and determine the curvature of the cluster lens for the same reason, to avoid sunlight washing out the driver's view of the cluster instruments," Faust said. "Most people don't realize that you can design out most display reflections and glare."
The group also works with the color and materials team to make sure the materials used on the instrument panel, doors and floor console don't reflect light into the driver's eyes or cause reflection on the inside of the windshield — a condition called veiling glare, which can blind the driver to what is outside the vehicle, he said.
Sure, drivers know that when they get into a vehicle they find a comfortable seated position. Creating that experience takes "an incredible amount of work," Faust said.
Lights, cameras, cockpit
And while he doesn't work with mannequins in vehicle models to set up driver positions, he does help to determine where the controls and displays are placed so that anyone can reach them comfortably and intuitively — whether it's door locks or ignition or radio controls or a touch screen. People might best understand what he does as ergonomics, helping to create a design that accommodates drives of every size.
"All the checks for reach, visibility, clearance, comfort in use, logic of operation, contrast and legibility in the cockpit," Faust said, that's his team. "And we get to do the cool stuff, too, features like integrating the bottle opener (in the rear hatch) or helping the stowage guy with the hidden storage bin under the second row seats or the adjustable floodlights on the liftgate to illuminate the back of the Bronco Sport at night when you need to set up your campsite."
As someone who has a master's degree in human factors, the discipline of understanding human capabilities, Faust explores what's possible.
And that's when he came up with the idea to install durable straps into the Bronco Sport, what is used on military gear commonly called MOLLE, which is pronounced "Molly" and stands for Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment.
"I'd seen it everywhere while I was working at General Dynamics Land Systems," Faust said. "All over their military gear, all over their clothing. I used to wear it myself when evaluating a vehicle. I would put on an armor vest and a fighting load carrier and make sure whatever we were designing would work for a soldier when they were in the vehicle."
Soldier tech for adventurers
He has an assault pack covered in MOLLE straps.
"This is a 24-hour pack that soldiers would use when they're in combat. It is just big enough to carry just what they need and nothing more — extra rounds, a First-Aid kit, MREs," said Faust, whose name is on the patent for the Bronco Sport design.
The straps have been offered as part of aftermarket slip-on seat covers, he noted. But Ford wanted to integrate the design into the seat, creating something unique and offer it standard on the baby Bronco. This way, people can carry their water bottles and flashlights and hook their gear to it while knowing the items would remain secure.
Ford describes it this way:
A grid design of 1-inch straps with a 1-inch space between each and 1.5 inches separating the vertical seams. Flexible material is used for the seatbacks and straps. There's also a zippered pouch in place of a traditional map pocket, integrated above the grid of nylon straps for storage.
"That was a lot of work," Faust said. "We had to keep refining the idea. The first iteration didn't work so well. We found we had to have a flexible backing on the seat and the straps — both had to give. The seat team found the materials for the strap and the backing that allowed the flex."
They knew they wanted those straps low on the seatback but the team had the map pocket. If the MOLLE strap was attached to the map pocket, attaching something to it would pull the map pocket open and cause it to sag.
"We wanted something that would hold up over time. The seat team actually came up with the idea of creating the zippered pouch above the straps and actually carved space out of the seat to provide more room for stuff in the pouch without intruding into ... knee space," Faust said. "The seat team actually carved space out of the seat."
Without support from managers, this unusual feature never would have made it to consumers.
Inventions that don't die
"I had this idea but it would've remained just an idea if Gerardo (Diaz Paraedes) had not been able to design how to attach it to the seat, if Jim (Rippy) didn't push to get funding to make sure we could get this paid for. And Manzil Kale, the stowage engineer, hadn't done all his evaluations," Faust said.
"This is typically something you'd see on a show car and never see again, because it costs a lot," Faust said. "Ford was focused on how do we make this vehicle do more, be more than a typical SUV. We had brainstorming sessions. They said we need ideas. 'How do we add value for the outdoorsman?'"
The Ford patent for the MOLLE design lists an international lineup including Faust, Paredes, João Marcos, Nicole Rush, Keith Rogman and Patrick Vanderpool. Javier Bartolo, a Ford engineer in Mexico, played a key role too.
Still, ideas that come from "lower level" engineers require support of others, he said.
Rippy, the Bronco Sport program manager, Adnan Khan, vehicle engineering manager, and Adrian Aguirre, chief engineer, were intensely focused, Faust said. "That’s why these items, which normally would've been costed out, wound up in the vehicle. They cared about it and wanted to make it exceptional."
'Dedication was unmatched'
Faust has earned, over the years, a reputation for excellence.
"I had the good fortune to first meet John Carl in Graduate School at Embry Riddle in 2001. … John Carl immediately stood out for his strong desire to learn and implicit attention to details. We collaborated on several projects throughout our graduate student careers and shared a common interest in our goal to make a profound difference in the realm of human factors," Tony Bartolone, launch project engineer at NASA Kennedy Space Center, wrote of Faust on LinkedIn in 2009.
"Through the years he demonstrated himself on numerous occasions as being someone I could rely on both intellectually and professionally as a source of knowledge and motivation."
'Normandy … where he died'
The present drive is very much influenced by the past, Faust said.
Not only did his father serve in the Korean War as a drill sergeant, but his grandfather was a lieutenant colonel in World War II. Faust was named after his great uncle, Carl Alexander, who died in Normandy in July 1944.
"I think about my great uncle a lot. I was born on June 6, the anniversary of the invasion of Normandy," Faust said. "My dad was a very powerful guy, very intelligent and driven. He pushed me really hard and demanded a lot from me."
But the focus on team comes from the World War II veteran who died in France in battle, Faust said. "I have learned to have a service ethic and think about the team first. That’s what he did when he died. I traveled to Normandy to see where he died. I went to his gravesite."
There, Alexander is buried on the bluff above Omaha Beach along with more than 9,000 other soldiers.
"It's a very powerful theme for me," Faust said. "Nothing gets done without the team. My great uncle was a second lieutenant leading a group of men, early in U.S. Army’s experience in Normandy. It was difficult terrain … fields with tall hedgerows like a berm of dirt with trees growing out of it. Difficult to maneuver men and armor through that difficult terrain. And the Germans had years to set up defenses."
Alexander was awarded a Silver Star posthumously, said Faust, who did extensive research on the circumstances of the recognition.
"What moves me the most is that in those moments after he was wounded, and he knew he was going to die, he was thinking about his men. He was trying to help them rather than thinking about himself," Faust said. "I think focusing on others is one of the best attributes a person can have rather than being self-centered and focused on oneself. Good soldiers care about other people. Good engineers care about other people."
And that, Faust said, is why he insists on naming his team — always.
At General Dynamics, he credited Bill Goin, Bob Appledorn, James Ealy, Chad Paul and Dan Reed "for one of the best experiences" of his life.
"All these guys were so good at what they were doing," Faust said. "I didn't want to let them down."
This latest behind-the-scenes effort on the Bronco Sport is no small feat.
GoPro, Yeti compatible
Mark Douglas, president of Avis Ford in Southfield, said the unique design feature is further evidence that Ford worked to understand its consumers and how they would use the off-road vehicle.
“They thought of everything when they designed this vehicle,” Douglas said. “It could be a GoPro camera or attaching your Yeti cup (to the MOLLE straps). Whatever you need to clip on. The idea is that you want to put things at the user’s fingertips and make everything easily accessible. Ford really thought about the engineering of this vehicle. They didn’t try to be the pretty girl in the room, and just go after Jeep on styling. Ford truly thought about all the different things the vehicle will be used for.”
As a dealer, Thad Szott said he appreciates that Ford designers are looking at simple, quiet, functional details in every small space.
"Even better that this particular hook was influenced by our U.S. military heritage," said Szott, who sells Ford in Holly, Toyota in Waterford and Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram in White Lake, Highland and New Hudson.
Meanwhile, RJ Magiera of Grand Blanc, a sales and leasing consultant at Szott Ford, said the Bronco Sport design touch reminds him of his days in the U.S. Air Force, having served seven years as a calibration technician on active duty that ended in 1998.
"It's a great idea because the vehicle is designed to take you on an adventure," Magiera said. "You can access things for your mountain bike or rigging for fishing equipment or campaign gear — it's just all set up to be easily accessible."
In the military, he said, "anytime we were in the bigger trucks going on convoy-type stuff, you’ll see MOLLE-type straps for hanging your gear. It allows you to set up what you need, when you need it."
Eric Noble, professor of vehicle technology at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California, and a product development consultant at The CarLab, said he was stunned by Ford's decision not to eliminate the cool feature.
No 'vanishing act'
"Somehow Ford has managed with these to be the exception to the rule," Noble said. "The rule for 20 years has been this stuff turns up on concept cars and has vanished by production. Ford gets credit not only for preventing the vanishing act but also for delivering something that isn’t a watered down, plastic-y cheap or otherwise useless feature."
Noble said small details illustrate a bigger picture and help explain the early success of the Bronco Sport.
"A focused product team can actually deliver highly differentiated product even in a crowded segment, if the corporation allows them to do it," Noble said. "As an industry, they like to show stuff on show cars. But when the consumer is stepping up like Charlie Brown, ready to kick the football, Lucy pulls it away. Ford didn't. Good for them. Good for them."
Bronco Sport vs. Jeep Cherokee
So far this year, Ford is beating its direct competitor, the Jeep Cherokee, by nearly 10,000 vehicles over the same time period.
Through October, Bronco Sport has sold 90,405 while Jeep Cherokee has sold 80,581 vehicles. For July through September, Jeep sold 11,592 Cherokees while Ford sold 20,690 Bronco Sports, according to industry sales data.
The 2021 Bronco Sport base model totals $28,155 including fees, while the 2022 model starts at $28,760. The SUV is built in Mexico.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Ford Bronco Sport MOLLE seat straps feature inspired by military