Ford's fascination with the future
From checking a car's electric driving range via a watch to ultimately owning a vehicle that will drive you, Ford's vision for the future appears as different today as Henry Ford's idea of mass-producing the Model T must have seemed a century ago to a population still largely reliant on the horse and buggy.
Ford Motor Company recently gave a glimpse into that future, and it included both the expected -- think autonomous cars -- and the surprising (how about a Ford electric bike linked to a smartphone).
The grand vision and gaggle of announcements came at the fifth annual Further with Ford symposium before hundreds of automotive and tech journalists from around the world.
Silicon Valley sway
In a nod to its own transformation from a traditional automaker to a company just as focused on innovative mobility solutions, this year's conference took place not in Ford's Dearborn, Michigan, headquarters but in the high-tech hub of Silicon Valley, where it's had a presence since 2012. More recently, Ford has set up shop in Palo Alto with its Research and Innovation Center. Opened this past January, the center joins tech pioneers in the region such as Google, Apple, Intel and Hewlett-Packard, not to mention social-media behemoths Facebook and Twitter. But among automakers, Ford's presence is significant.
"We are on track to have one of the largest automotive presences in Silicon Valley," Ford President and CEO Mark Fields said at the keynote address.
By the end of the year, the center aims to employ about 125 researchers, engineers and scientists working on human-machine interfaces, analytics, and advanced materials and electronics.
The future of Ford
Ford invited us to peer into its future, and we came away impressed not just with the potential products and services unveiled, but the fervor and philosophy behind them. Namely, Ford is wisely taking an offensive approach to some of the most potentially disruptive technologies and services taking place in the automotive industry. Here are three standout ideas Ford presented:
Autonomous cars: Autonomy is the buzz word these days in the automotive industry, and it simply means cars that can drive themselves. Every major automaker is working on this, all with the idea of making riding in a car a better and safer experience for passengers, especially in urban settings where drivers would otherwise be grinding it out in traffic when they could be doing something far more productive or entertaining.
One of the biggest announcements at the 2015 Further with Ford conference is that the automaker has moved its autonomous vehicle technology from a research effort to an advanced engineering effort. While you shouldn't expect to go out tomorrow and buy a Ford Escape that will drive you to work next week, the announcement is another milestone in the company's effort to make that day a possibility.
"During the next five years, we will move to migrate driver-assist technologies across our product lineup to help make our roads safer and continue to increase automated driving capability," said Raj Nair, Ford group vice president, Global Product Development. "At the same time, we are working to make sure those features and the whole way you shop for, buy and own a Ford vehicle provides an outstanding customer experience."
Car-sharing programs: Ford's credit-lending arm announced the Peer-2-Peer Car Sharing program, which allows select customers to rent out their vehicles. The pilot program, which Fields likened to "Airbnb for cars," will take place in select cities in the U.S. (Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, Portland, Chicago and Washington, D.C.) and London. It is to be available to 14,000 U.S. customers financed through Ford Credit and 12,000 customers in the U.K. In the U.S. the program will partner with Getaround, and in London the partnership will be with easyCar Club.
The program is significant in that it allows drivers -- particularly younger ones who may be cash-strapped -- to offset their monthly payments with short-term loans to pre-screened drivers. According to Ford's research findings, more than half of millennials are open to sharing their vehicle with others.
Additionally, Ford recently announced GoDrive, an on-demand public-car sharing service that allows access to fleet cars for one-way trips in London. At present, that pay-as-you-go program offers 50 cars in 20 locations with guaranteed parking -- a valuable asset in traffic-snarled London.
Electric bikes: Battery-powered bikes have been around for years, but Ford's prototypes are unlike any we've ever seen. Ford's latest concept, dubbed the MoDe:Flex, is particularly impressive. The bike links to a user's smartphone and smartwatch, which enables apps to relay real-time information about road conditions, time to destination and more.
When linked to a smartwatch, one of the bike's innovations is the "no sweat" mode, which increases pedal assistance based on your heart rate so you don't arrive to work a sweaty mess. The bike also folds, has the ability to be recharged in a car, and even sends the rider warnings of, say, approaching cars, via haptic feedback to the handlebars.
New roads ahead
Ford is looking to these products, services and technologies to not only keep up with the times, but stay ahead of them. Of course, this is hardly new thinking for a company whose name is synonymous with the advent of modern vehicle production. While looking to the future, Ford is also just as quick to remember its past success that got the company to where it is today.
"My great-grandfather helped put the world on wheels so everyone could enjoy the benefits of mobility," Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford said in a statement. "Our vision today is to expand that same thinking using advanced technology and new business models, and addressing the mobility challenges people face around the world."