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Ford MoDe:Flex electric commuter bike prototype
Ford MoDe:Flex electric commuter bike prototype

Ford Seeking to Re-Invent Itself with Smart Mobility

Technically speaking, the term is called 'multimodal' mobility, but what we're really talking about is the end of the ICE-age of the private internal combustion engine motorcar, hastened by the advent of the autonomous electric vehicles and smart, connected e-bikes.

Ford clearly has its 'stuff' together. Two conversations on my flight out to San Francisco this week underscore this.

Conversation #1: Fellow UAL passenger on Omaha-Denver leg noted that Ford was the only one of the Big Three that didn't take taxpayer bailout money back in 2008.

Conversation #2: Idaho potato farmer catching a quick bite outside the McDonalds in the DIA terminal. Sharing a table, he said he buys 200 pickup trucks and always buys Chevrolets because they are about $1000 cheaper, but in his view, Ford's F150 is a better truck.

Interestingly, both also volunteered that they admire Tesla and Elon Musk.

What neither gentlemen appreciates however is that Ford is in the process of trying to reinvent itself, because it sees the world changing around it in very material ways that threaten its century-old business model of building and selling cars and trucks.

This explains why over the last year or so, they have conducted some 25 different experiments aimed at discovering potential new revenue opportunities beyond its century-old manufacturing model, one more focused on selling mobility -- i.e. transportation services -- instead of just cars. Those experiments in new types of vehicle ownership, vehicle sharing, and... wait for it.... electric bicycles, are providing Ford with invaluable insights that executives hope will lead to new business models, as explained by Ford CEO Mark Fields during this week's Further with Ford 2015 Silicon Valley media event that I was privileged to attend. Be sure to watch the abbreviated video of Mark's comments last Tuesday evening at the Pier 27 dinner event. When you do, please note the prominent position electric bicycles play in his talk.

What CEO Fields didn't mention is that Ford hasn't exactly figured out what they plan to do their trio of smart e-bikes. Do they contract out their manufacture like Volkswagen did with its Smart ebike and what Ford itself did back more than a decade ago with its short-lived Th!nk Fun and Traveler ebikes.

Or perhaps they might license the designs to more established two-wheel manufacturers in Taiwan or Vietnam. And thinking even bigger, they might really get serious about the subject and build them in their own factory, maybe in Mexico or Mississippi. Or, maybe more likely, they might just ride the wave of favorable publicity until it peters out and then let the whole thing simply fade away and go back to business as usual for another 10-15 years.

Except that Ford knows "business as usual" is becoming a thing of the past as what people need and want and can afford steadily evolves away from the once tried and true "sell-'em-a-new-car-every-three-years" model. As Mark Fields points out, the planet simply can't sustain the 2-car family model we accept here in the United States, not as the global middle class grows and our population heads for 9 billion. There aren't the resources and the planet simply can't handle that level of air pollution.

Henry Ford with original Quadricycle

So Ford experiments, probing various scenarios that may not keep its factories humming, but will insure growing revenues going forward. And one of those could very well revolve around the role of ebikes in 'first' and 'last' mile multimodal systems. In a way, Ford would be coming back to where it all began with Henry Ford's original 'Quadricycle' built largely from bicycle parts. And recall, it was bicycles that gave us both motorcycles and airplanes. Many a bicycle maker, including the Brothers Wright, leveraged the technology into bigger and often better things.

Just as the citizens of Dayton, Ohio once knew Orville and Wilbur as bicycle makers before they knew them as aviation pioneers, so too the citizens of the future may see Ford not as a "Motor" company but as a "Mobility" company. If it does, the transformation will be fascinating to watch.

Posted By: Bill Moore [27-Jun-2015]