Jul 31, 2019

Ford dives further into urban transit

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Ford is starting to position itself as more than a manufacturer of cars and trucks. It also wants to be an orchestrator of urban transit, helping cities move people efficiently from A to B.

The big picture: Legacy automakers are scrambling to reinvent themselves in the face of disruptive technologies like automated vehicles and car-sharing. Ford is trying to take a more holistic approach than others, partnering with urban planners to address their cities' current transportation problems while laying the technology foundation for tomorrow's AVs.

What's happening: Ford has been slowly assembling the pieces of that transportation technology puzzle.

  • This week its subsidiary Ford Smart Mobility acquired Journey Holding, a software company that specializes in intelligent transportation systems for municipalities, universities, airports, hospitals and corporate fleets.
  • Journey, created in January through a merger between DoubleMap Inc. and Ride Systems LLC, will combine with Ford-owned TransLoc, which helps public and private transit providers optimize their on-demand and fixed route systems.
  • The plan is to tie them together with other Ford-owned mobility services like Spin scooters and GoRide Health nonemergency medical transportation — and someday, robotaxis, too — for an all-in-one, connected transportation platform, says Brett Wheatley, vice president of marketing and growth for Ford Smart Mobility.

Why it matters: Today, cities are cobbling together a potpourri of transportation solutions — parking, microtransit, ride-sharing, buses, subways — with no idea how effective they are or how they can work together.

  • Ford aims to provide city planners with easy-to-visualize dashboards so they can make better transit decisions.
  • The platform would also aid riders by providing a one-stop app for planning their trips.

There's competition in the space from many smaller firms and companies like Via, whose routing technology enables a fully dynamic, on-demand ride-sharing network in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

  • Most are niche players, though, focused on just one piece of the transit tech puzzle.
  • Uber is the exception. It, too, has ambitions for a one-stop transportation network, including AVs and even flying taxis one day.
  • Ford has at least one advantage over rivals, though: Many police cars and ambulances are Ford vehicles. It plans to leverage its city relationships and knowledge from those fleets to develop routing and dispatch technology for other transportation systems.
  • GM Cruise, which backed off its timetable for launching a robotaxi fleet in San Francisco this year, is meanwhile trying to win favor with city leaders and residents with a public awareness campaign.

Ford's shift toward urban transit comes as CEO Jim Hackett is simultaneously trying to lead a larger turnaround at the automaker.

The bottom line: Automakers need a new business model for the future, and Ford, like the rest, sees self-driving car fleets as key to its strategy. In the meantime, its focus is on building the relationships and track record in cities so that when AVs do arrive, urban leaders will choose Ford as their transit partner.

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