Today was the first press-only day at the 2010 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, and while it was blustery and miserable outside, inside the Cobo Center, it was divine, chrome and carbon fiber as far as the eye could see.

I started at the gigantic Ford display, and as I approached, they were wheeling in the 2010 North American Car of the Year, the 2010 Fusion Hybrid. I have always loved this car. It impressed me from the moment I first laid eyes on it, and especially once I got behind the wheel. I liked it more than the third-gen Toyota Prius, more than the Camry Hybrid. This is a big deal, since I was raised in California, so I don’t have that die-hard Big Three preference like most Detroiters — the Fusion Hybrid is just really that fantastic. (Read my very brief ride & drive review here.) As I mentioned in my tiny review, the instrument panel was one of my favorite features, and not just because of the cool “efficiency leaves” display (I know, I’m a total weenie). It’s ultra-intuitive and also sleek, high-tech, and, well, cool. While driving, you look down, wondering how fast you might be going, or how efficiently you might be driving, and your eyes happen to light exactly where the information happens to be. How did Ford do that?

I was able to snag a few moments with Nancy Gioia, Director, Global Electrification Development at Ford, and I asked her how Ford designed that incredibly intuitive instrument panel, and what might be in store in their next generation of electrified vehicles.

Gioia agreed that the IP in the Focus hybrid was designed to be intuitive and visually interesting, but not a distraction. “Your game is driving,” she noted, “and the IP is your toolbox, your personal assistant.” When the designers first started development of the Fusion Hybrid instrument panel, they started looking at it like they would a video game. Gioia says they took a step back from that, and ended up configuring more than a hundred different variations of the panel, fine-tuning and testing until they had what they felt was an ideal.

“We were really focused on doing something different, something better,” Gioia said. She added that in the next generation of electric vehicles, Ford will go one step further, alluding to more features and sync compatibility, like a GPS-type item that will inform drivers how much battery life is left, and point out potential recharging stations on the current route. That would go a long, long way to alleviating “range anxiety” in consumers who just aren’t comfortable driving a BEV… yet.

“We’re also planning a feature that will make it possible to plan a route at home, then send it to your vehicle the night before you travel, so it’s all ready to go in the morning,” Gioia said. She hinted there would be more, and as a fan of the current IP, I can’t wait to see what exactly that might entail.