When Ford first began introducing its prototype foldable/transportable/electrified bicycles, the general response from mainstream media was relatively muted, perhaps because not too many auto industry observers knew what to make of the whole pedal power idea coming from the home of horsepower icons like Mustang, GT, and F-150.However, if you have been following Ford’s rebranding as a mobility company and an auto manufacturer, the move into cycling technology makes perfect sense — and it could be huge, too.
Ford Really Is Very Serious About Bicycles
CleanTechnica got the inside scoop about Ford’s bicycle plans during the Detroit North American International Auto Show* on Tuesday, when we buttonholed Dr. Ken Washington, the company’s VP for Research and Advanced Engineering. Yeah, this guy:
Prior to joining Ford, he was vice president of the Space Technology Advanced Research and Development Laboratories at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company. In this role, Washington was responsible for leading an organization of approximately 700 scientists and engineers in performing research and development in space science and related R&D.
So, there’s that. When we asked Dr. Washington, “how serious, really, is Ford about bicycles?” we got this unhesitating answer from Washington:
We are very serious about bicycles.
That’s not a mere quip, by the way. We asked the question because Washington and Techstars Mobility Managing Director Ted Serbinski had just finished up a presentation about Ford’s mobility solutions titled “Finding New Ways To Move You.” At the outset Washington explained that while Ford is exploring about two dozen different ways to help people get through their day, currently the main focus is on just two of those areas, and one of those happens to involve bicycles (the other involves flexible use and ownership of vehicles so we’ll get to that some other time).
The Last Mile Problem
The focus area that involves bicycles has to do with multi-modal transportation. Many people already experience it daily, for example by driving or biking to a parking lot to take a commuter bus or train.
The problem is that “last mile,” when the mass transit vehicle reaches its destination, and your final destination is still a mile or so away. For a commute into an urban center, for example, one or so miles may sound like a manageable walk, but when you factor in extras like time, safety, or shlepping baggage, that last mile can mean the difference between taking mass transit or simply driving all the way in and finding a parking lot, thereby adding to urban congestion.
The Bicycle Solution
Bicycles are an obvious last-mile solution, but as Washington explained, they are not a solution for everyone. Conventional pedal bikes require a certain level of fitness, and they are not an ideal alternative for people who are expected to show up for work without smelling like they just hopped off the Exercycle.
Electric bicycles are a partial solution, since you don’t have to break a sweat to get where you’re going. However, conventional e-bikes are more suitable for full commutes. When used in tandem with bus or train travel, space limitations become a huge issue, as they already are for bicycles.
With that in mind, Ford is anticipating demand for a foldable e-bike that dovetails with the demands of a multi-modal commute and could be transported easily by car, bus, or train. That solution could enable multi-modal commuters to use the same bicycle door-to-door, so it would also cut down on traffic and emissions issues at the home end of the commute.
For those of you who have experience with New York’s Penn Station and other commuter points, a foldable bike — especially a lightweight one — also helps get around the awkwardness of trying to walk a full scale bicycle in a tightly packed crowd.
Weather almost always requires cyclists to have a backup plan, but since Ford is all over cross-pollinating ideas within itself and with startups like Techstar Mobility’s Split, we’re thinking that Ford may be anticipating a market for employer-based multimodal cycling incentives that include rebates for weather related alternatives.
Ford is also looking into the idea of a bicycle that could be integrated into its “Dynamic Shuttle” transit van, which just launched on a pilot basis at the company’s Dearborn campus.
Concluding the multi-modal part of the presentation, Washington said:
We’re taking smart risks and exploring lots of options, and finding new ways to move is going to require us to stitch together different technologies…
That’s partly an allusion to the “intelligent” part of the-bike concept, which involves an Internet-connected hookup with smartphones.
In our conversation after the presentation, Washington said that Ford is now in the stage of looking for partners and business models that would bring all this to market… so, look for a lot more bicycle activity from Ford in the coming years.
Infographic: via Ford Motor Company.
*CleanTechnica is attending the Detroit NAIAS as a guest of Ford.