“Change or die” is far from just the 21st-century rallying cry of Silicon Valley startups. The sentiment is taking hold within large corporations across every imaginable industry. Look at the automotive sector, and at Ford in particular. Rather than being content to just incorporate advanced technologies into the cars it makes, the company is determined to shape the future of mobility in general, especially how we move through cities.
Through Ford City Solutions, which launched last year as part of the new subsidiary Ford Smart Mobility, the company is working with urban communities to understand their transportation challenges, such as traffic congestion or public transit dead zones. It then develops cutting-edge solutions to meet a locale’s current and future needs.
In what’s certainly a sign of the times, the 113-year-old automaker sees privately owned vehicles as just one part of the answer. From shared bikes to shared autonomous vehicles that show up at a moment’s notice, the future of mobility is being shaped today, and Ford is remaking itself to lead in the space, no matter what technologies might be coming down the road.
In a recent interview, Jessica Robinson, director of City Solutions at Ford Smart Mobility, shared how she sees Ford’s expanding role in the cities of the future, and the surprising ways we’ll navigate them.
City Solutions seems like a big departure from Ford’s longtime core business. What does the company hope to accomplish with this new group?
Ford hopes to start a conversation about how cities will evolve and change along with technology. In the near term, that means connecting directly with communities as we think about things that will impact cities over the next five years. Autonomous and electric vehicles. Increased connectivity in our cars and our lives. And in the long term—over the next 15 to 30 years—it’s thinking about the wholesale redesign of cities. How will roads and infrastructure change? What will buildings look like? How will we incorporate modes of travel we haven’t even imagined yet?
What have you learned from cities so far? What are their biggest mobility challenges?
Right now, there’s a paradox at work: People are moving to cities at an unprecedented rate, but those cities are not investing in street infrastructure that can stand up to even the current usage today. With so many more people flooding into cities, something has to break. In many cases, it already is breaking. So we’re asking, What are the new tools that citizens might need? Or what can a municipality implement to use the systems they already have in a smarter way?
What sort of tools have you come up with?
In London, we have a project that Ford piloted called GoPark, which uses a GPS-enabled app to tell drivers where they can and can’t legally park in a city that has notoriously complicated parking rules. That doesn’t just help drivers but also reduces traffic overall as people take less time looking for a spot. And it’ll provide the city with useful data on how citizens are interacting with the parking infrastructure.
To what extent can you solve similar problems in different cities, even different countries, versus customizing an approach for one place?
There are some universal challenges we can address that manifest differently in different places, such as parking, congestion, or air quality. We are creating better tools for cities and residents to ease these common challenges and improve awareness of mobility options.
At the same time, these solutions have to be reflective of local needs. In San Francisco, we’ve acquired a crowdsourced commuter shuttle service called Chariot, where riders determine the shuttle’s route. We also are collaborating with Motivate on a bike-sharing program called Ford GoBike that’s growing to 7,000 bikes this year. Both complement the existing public transit network.
Is the idea that you then tie these various options together?
It’s absolutely critical. Adding more services creates more chaos if it isn’t strategically integrated to enhance existing systems. I don’t think anyone has a silver bullet that can bring all the pieces together yet. But we do know that the best way to alleviate problems facing our cities is to focus on the residents, to listen and engage in conversations at that city level, to include government, as well as other solution and tech providers.
What’s the most unusual mobility solution you’ve helped a community develop?
In Guinea, Africa, infant mortality is high, and one of the causes is the challenge, particularly for pregnant women, of getting to a doctor. We worked on a project called Riders for Health, which brings doctors into the community on motorcycle. It’s a creative approach to mobility and, quite literally, a lifesaving service. Ford was a catalyst on that. Now it’s a nonprofit running on its own.
The future of mobility is full of so many possibilities and so much uncertainty. How do you stay focused and decide what makes the most sense for Ford to pursue?
It helps that we aren’t just thinking about how we can win in the future, but also where we come from as a company. The roots to our commitment in mobility go back to Henry Ford. He saw the car as a solution to a problem—a way to help people pursue new economic opportunities. This manifested as the opening of the highways to humankind.
Today, we need to solve the inverse problem—congested highways that are keeping people from pursuing those very same opportunities. So we’re solving problems today and thinking about them in the future with the same frame of mind that goes back to the very founding of the company.
This article was created for and commissioned by Ford.