The Transformation of Transportation @ Ford

One of my favorite things about teaching mobility design at College for Creative Studies in Detroit is being able to see the factory where Henry Ford created the Model T just a few blocks away. The automobile has made such a profound positive impact in the development of human civilization; I love being so close to where it all began. As I think of what Henry Ford created, I wonder what is next for Ford Motor Company, as it strives to transform itself from vehicle manufacturer into a true smart mobility company.

Over the past decade I have supported a number of sustainable transportation programs where I interact with staff members of government agencies and various advocacy organizations that often complain about the automobile. I don’t think that many of those people understand that before the Model T, the average American never traveled more than 30 miles from their birthplace.  Can any of us imagine what kind of people we would be if we lived our lives with such dramatically limited interactions with others?

I have worked with Ford on a variety of occasions. The first was as a summer car design intern in 1984. In 2000, I supported the company’s (early) design for local transportation (Think) on creating a new concept Ford E-Delivery Company. Ford people are great to work with, really intelligent and highly committed. 

The challenge ahead for Ford (and other carmakers on this path) is daunting. Leaving a paradigm where most every adult American owns a car and heading into “Zipcar world,” where 20 consumers get by with 1 shared automobile won’t be easy. Ford is obviously investing smartly in many new areas, including ultra-simple electric bikes.

Here are my 5 suggestions to help Ford down this path:

1. Market your new mobility offerings with the same passion as you have for your vehicles. I was surprised to see that the introduction video produced for Ford’s GoDrive carshare service in London opened in a dark garage.  Not exactly a great setting. I know the budgets are tight for niche offerings. But the new mobility solutions Ford is creating are exciting and will take us into an awesome new world. The marketing should have real passion!

2. Combine your experiments. Ford has two-dozen interesting experiments taking place around the globe, but in a somewhat piecemeal manner. The mobility future is about bringing many new options together. Consider Washington DC, where the consumer has more than 10 quality mobility modes from which to choose, which helps to reduce some automobile traffic. Consumers there have great walking environments, the Metro subway, buses, taxis, Zipcars, Uber, Lyft, Car2Go, Capital Bikeshare, and more. Orchestrating them is key.

3. Involve Ford Design more. A gorgeous Ford mobility future will come more from designers than other internal disciplines. Given how long Bill Ford has focused on smart mobility, I was surprised to be contacted by a headhunter this year, seeking an Advanced Design Director at Ford. I soon learned the search was for a car designer (or car stylist). I was highly surprised the designer to lead Ford’s future was to be car-centered. 

4. Call your program “New Transportation” (in America, at least). We professionals can go to all the “mobility” conferences we want, but the consumer doesn’t know what “mobility” means. I wonder what Ford CEO Mark Fields would discover if he had a large dinner party in his suburban Detroit home and surveyed his guests. Would they even know what “Smart Mobility” means? I doubt it. “Transportation” is what many consumers know to mean something about cars and how they get around their city.

5. Educate internally. I recently enjoyed talking to a Ford leader for 90 minutes about this future. But I learned at the end of the talk he thought it was about solving traffic congestion. He didn’t understand how the new Information Communication Technology (ICT) revolution was enabling humans to create all-new means to move ourselves that requires far less energy, less land, with far fewer “parts”, allowing us to travel at higher speeds and with far more enjoyment.

With the majority of Ford top management having spent their careers developing, making, selling, and supporting vehicles, this transformation is going to be challenging. But I expect Ford will succeed and our cities and world will be very glad they did! 

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Dan Sturges is mobility design consultant for team red and has been supporting “transformative” transportation projects for nearly 30 years.  He trained as a car designer, worked as an entrepreneur to bring to market a new intermediate vehicle category. He supports a wide range of vehicle design and mobility planning efforts for both government and corporate entities.