Ford has unveiled the secret weapon it has been using for the last four years in its efforts to improve the quality of its car interiors - a robot called RUTH. But RUTH is no heartless automaton. In fact she specialises in those elusive touchy-feely aspects of cars' interior trim, the tactile qualities and appearances of surfaces and switchgear that are of central importance in setting the ambience of cars' cabins, and, in particular, allow some more expensive cars to justify high price tags with their "premium" feel.

RUTH – the Robotized Unit for Tactility and Haptics – beavers away at a Ford research facility in Aachen in Germany, measuring parameters such as the hardness or softness and roughness or smoothness of surfaces. She also tests switchgear (buttons need to show the right degree of resistance and be as uniform as possible in operation) and measures gaps and spaces to make sure that they are as uniform and small as possible. Even the temperatures of switches and buttons are monitored to make sure that they meet customers' expectations; drivers will expect a switch with a "metallic" appearance to feel colder than others, for example.

Most testers would agree that the quality of Ford's interior trim has improved a lot in recent years, so RUTH appears to be doing a good job. RUTHless competitors can probably be expected to come up with their own trim-testing robots before too long, now the secret is out.

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