Ford unveiled 25 new “Smart Mobility” experiments at the Consumer Electronics Show yesterday, and two of them really caught our eye. From our perspective both are revolutionary because they involve car sharing concepts that could give companies like Uber a run for the money, and since when does an auto manufacturer try to make it easier for more people to own fewer cars?
Here’s a hint: as a group, Ford’s Smart Mobility experiments are designed to address several troublesome megatrends that are hitting urban areas particularly hard.
That puts Ford in a small but apparently growing league of auto makers that are leveraging advanced communications and clean technology to move beyond an exclusive focus on the personal benefit of individual car ownership. These auto makers are reaching out to help solve broader problems and provide benefits to the community as a whole.
It’s Sink Or Swim For Personal Mobility
As Ford sees it, the megatrends driving its 25 experiments are “explosive population growth, an expanding middle class, air quality and public health concerns, and changing customer attitudes and priorities.”
You can see where the troublesome aspect comes in when you couple population growth with emissions and public health concerns. Throw in the buying power of an expanded middle class along with the trend toward megacities, and you have a recipe for urban traffic and air pollution nightmares that will make today’s congestion look downright fluid by comparison.
Then you have the “changing customer attitudes and priorities,” which we’re going to assume includes the simple equation that with more people living in cities, you’re going to have less demand for individual car ownership. That might not be troublesome for you, but it sure is causing the auto industry some headaches.
Here’s how the Ford media team sums up the driving force behind the 25 experiments, and note the clever way in which the company has subtly switched from an ownership model to a “user-ship” model:
Ford also announced 25 mobility experiments around the world this year to test breakthrough transportation ideas to create better customer experiences, more flexible user-ship models and social collaboration that can reward customers.
Yep, that social collaboration thing would be car sharing. Here’s a somewhat more excitable embrace of car sharing as a business model by Ford President and CEO Mark Fields:
We see a world where vehicles talk to one another, drivers and vehicles communicate with the city infrastructure to relieve congestion, and people routinely share vehicles or multiple forms of transportation for their daily commute. The experiments we’re undertaking today will lead to an all-new model of transportation and mobility within the next 10 years and beyond.
Car Sharing, Ford And Uber
By embracing all aspects of mobility and focusing on urban and commuter markets, Ford is elbowing in on territory marked out by car sharing companies like Zipcar, as well as the app enabled ride-on-demand model made notorious by companies like Uber.
Getting to Uber first, Ford envisions something it calls a “Dynamic Social Shuttle.” This would be a premium minibus that tailors its route and arrival times to the demands of its passengers as a group, say from four to 10 people.
The whole thing is enabled by a smartphone app on the customer side. On the vendor side, Ford foresees the development of a predictive algorithm that will enable the fleet owner to meet demands without wasting money on extra wheels.
The value of the social shuttle would be to enable complete strangers to carpool in a really nice, comfy vehicle for daily commutes, routine errands, and other trips around town.
Okay, so it’s not quite as nimble as the Uber model, but the social shuttle concept does provide for a measure of communication and cooperation among the riders, and that’s really what Ford is interested in. The technology is there, but it’s the human factor that will make all the difference.
So, will people share nicely? Well, between the “sharing economy” and the emergence of collaborative innovation model (check out Local Motors for a good example of that), it looks like Ford sees the potential for cooperation and collaboration among individuals to be a growing force in the future mobility market.
Ford does have in-house trendspotter, so if our guess is right, this isn’t just a nice touchy-feely thought that someone over there pulled out of their hat.
As a side note, if one of the characteristics of hipsterness is not owning a car, and the result is being able to afford cool clothes, neat gadgets, foodie food, craft beer, and lots of fun entertainment, then you can see why Ford is thinking that the up and coming generation has good incentives to cooperate and collaborate on mobility.
Car Sharing And Electric Vehicles
That brings us to car sharing. We took note back in 2009 when Zipcar started to introduce electric vehicle car sharing, and it looks like Ford is taking it up to the next level, with an experiment aimed squarely at making it easier to share EVs.
One of the experiments is aimed at resolving the issue posed by EV charging. Going on the assumption that a shared car will be taking more frequent trips, you’re going to run into problems when it comes to charging up for the next person.
Ford is looking at fast-charging technology to solve that problem, but with a twist. Its “Rapid Recharge & Share” experiment is going to focus on building relationships with existing infrastructure for cars, specifically fast-food joints or retailers that could install fast-charging stations at parking spots.
If the concept takes off, it could bump Uber off the market for errand-oriented rides as well as commuter trips, with the added attraction that you’re always going to get an EV.
That experiment is a little thin on detail right now, but we’re going to visit with Ford at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit next week, and if we can buttonhole somebody in the know we’ll pass that information right along to you.