Ford’s future beyond cars: Where rubber meets alternative roads | #WomenInTech

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As the world’s population in urban areas continues to grow, so does the need for more intelligent sources of transportation beyond the traditional vehicle. To tackle the issue, Ford Motor Co. is seeking alternatives to driving to work through its newly formed subsidiary Ford Smart Mobility LLC, which is operating in Palo Alto, California, and Dearborn, Michigan.

Ford Smart Mobility plans to be a leader in connectivity, mobility, autonomous vehicles, the customer experience and data and analytics. But why would a company whose principal business is manufacturing cars and trucks take on a business that seemingly conflicts with its own profit center? “It’s not about moving from an old business to a new business. It’s moving to a bigger business,” Ford Chief Executive Mark Fields told Automotive News.

Expecting a 20 percent profit margin in alternative transportation and forecasting much slower growth on the manufacturing side, Ford is trying to fill a gap in alternative transportation as it projects a 60 percent of the world’s population will live in cities by 2030.

Jessica Robinson, director of City Solutions (Ford Smart Mobility) at Ford, oversees identifying new and future mobility solutions for the company. By using cloud and big data — along with information gathered from working with elected officials, transportation managers, universities and business stakeholders — Robinson is trying to relieve the pain points of urban drivers by enabling Ford Smart Mobility to find solutions.

Robinson recently spoke with Jeff Frick (@JeffFrick), host of theCUBE, SiliconANGLE Media’s mobile live streaming studio, at the North American International Auto Show held in Detroit. They discussed Ford’s new venture into mobilizing the growing urban population.

This week, theCUBE highlights Jessica Robinson in our Women in Tech feature.

The technology behind smart mobility

Robinson has learned from talking to city mayors that they are faced with a paradox of new services and new demands from citizens about how to get around.

“And as people move to those cities, we need to increase the total capacity there, but at the same time we know our roads aren’t growing. We know that if you expand roads it doesn’t necessarily improve flow. And Ford thinks we can actually work together with cities to address this paradox,” Robinson summarized.

And to address concerns, Ford Smart Mobility is investing in big data and analytics to achieve its goal of enriching the customer experience and launching future products and services. Many of Ford’s vehicles already on the market employ vehicle connectivity through cameras, radars and ultrasonic sensors. By analyzing the data coming from these devices, Ford City Solutions will combine efforts with emerging megacities worldwide to manage the flow of traffic.

The company is working with technology partners to manage data, use breakthrough technologies such as autonomous vehicles, and learning from connectivity insights. All this will strengthen Ford Smart Mobility to innovate in the transportation services industry, according to Robinson.

“The work that we do reduces congestion and improves air quality, but at the end of the day, for business, there is a $5.6 trillion transportation services industry that we barely participate in today. So, when you think about the long-term future of Ford Motor Co. more broadly, it’s a place where we absolutely have to be,” explained Robinson.

Past and future: the Ford culture around mobility

“Ford actually has a history of this [way of] thinking, and you know when you hear Bill Ford talk he’ll say that it goes all the way back to the founding roots of the company itself,” remarked Robinson.

 “Growing up, there was something almost heroic about the car. The automobile represented possibility. I think we are there again.” –Bill Ford, Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman

According to a 2014 Ford sustainability report where it first introduced its Ford Smart Mobility initiative, the company’s history of innovation has lasted more than 100 years. “Our vision is to truly change how the world moves – again. Henry Ford did that a century ago when he manufactured affordable automobiles for the masses, thereby democratizing travel. We believe we have an opportunity to revolutionize transportation once again, only this time we’ll be powered by the digital economy,” Fields was quoted.

Robinson noted that setting up the separate business unit enables the company to move from the stage of experiments in mobility all over the world to scale a solution that brings the company back to its roots.

Last mile and multi-modal take shape

Ford Smart Mobility began several key initial experiments in the San Francisco area through two strategic moves. The company acquired Chariot, a San Francisco-based crowd-sourced shuttle service, and partnered with Motivate, a global bike-share leader, to add the new Ford GoBike bike sharing across the Bay Area.

Referring to the acquisition of Chariot and Motivate, Robinson acknowledged some small but noteworthy successes. “What’s important about [the initiatives] is there was a study that came out recently that one of the shuttle vehicles running around the city actually can take 25 cars off the road during a commute. So, it is rubber, and it is metal, but it is actually a completely different way about thinking how that vehicle plays out in the real world,” she reported.

When it comes to last mile and multi-modal solutions, Robinson stated that flexibility is what is driving Ford Smart Mobility to develop new alternatives. However, the company cannot do it alone and believes collaboration is key.

“That goes back to why we developed this group. We could develop and launch a new vehicle or a new service and attempt to do it on our own in a silo, but we really believe strongly that it needs to integrate with the broader system. Whether it’s walking or bicycling or bike-share or public transit, it can’t exist [on] its own, so we really do see the connection is critical,” concluded Robinson.

Watch the complete video interview below to learn more about the beginning of the startup and be sure to check out more of SiliconANGLE and theCUBE’s coverage of the North American International Auto Show.

Photo by SiliconANGLE