Common Sense Car Technologies: Understanding How Hand’s Free Liftgates Work

Those new hands-free liftgates are saving many backs from breaking, but how do they do it? Here’s how this interesting and innovative technology works.

The Problem

You get out to your car, and you realize that you have a problem. You have a bunch of groceries. They belong in the trunk, but they’re not getting in there unless you put down your bags or try to finagle the trunk while holding everything in one hand.

It’s just not going to work. And, if it’s raining or snowing, forget about it. You don’t want to set your groceries down in the snow or a rain puddle.

This is where hands-free liftgates come in.

How It Works

A system of electronics, that include motion sensors, can sense movement when you’re near the rear of the vehicle. These sensors are sort of like the sensor bar on a Wii entertainment system.

In some vehicles, like the Ford Explorer 2016, there are actually two sensors that run along the rear of the vehicle at bumper height. They form an electrical field that’s broken when an object comes near it.

These sensors look for a pair of shins to come into the field of view. A gentle forward kicking motion with the foot and then the foot withdrawing. If that motion happens, and the sensors also detect the remote in your pocket, then the controller module trips an electric motor to open the hatch.

When the hatch closes, pinch sensors guard against any obstructions that might be in the way (say, you forgot to get the bags all the way into the back). A final control unit can retract and redeploy the cargo cover.

The technical challenges in making this work were amazing. Engineers tested against many different kinds of false positives, like basketballs being thrown at the vehicle, pets walking by, a hard rainstorm, and shopping carts that got too close.

Ford Vs The Competition

Ford seems to be leading the way with this technology, with Mercedes-Benz and BMW following suit on some of its models.

But, since Ford is considered a mid-tier, or entry-level, car manufacturer, depending on which model you’re buying, it’s making the biggest impact in the consumer market.

Some models of Ford’s vehicles do cost more than others, with the Escape coming in at $23,000 for a stripped down front-drive Escape S model. Then, there’s the fully-loaded all-wheel-drive Escape for $38,000.

The best technology for under $40,000 is in the SEl, which is one model down from the Titanium.

Another challenge that Ford had to overcome is the fact that no one has attempted this type of technology before. It’s a first in the automotive world. Usually, car manufacturers are simply adopting existing tech from the industry or from another industry.

Take in-dash CD players. Car manufacturers didn’t have to reinvent the wheel, so to speak. They just adopted the technology for automobiles.

But, with hands-free liftgates, there were no blueprints.

If you’re looking to add this feature on your next upgrade, look to the dealer for instructions on how to use it, and any servicing that needs to be done over time.

John Garcia has a working knowledge of the auto industry and likes to share his insights online. He writes frequently for a number of automotive websites.

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