Ford isn’t the only automaker pivoting to mobility. But it’s been one of the most aggressive to move from primarily producing vehicles to promoting a panoply of mobility solutions – from vanpool services to bike-sharing – in an effort to remain viable in what many see as a disrupted future for the auto industry.
Ford’s mobility message also has a compelling narrative. By being both a car industry pioneer and the first to develop the assembly line to mass produce vehicles, founder Henry Ford was at the forefront of the last seismic shift in personal transportation. It’s a storyline tailor-made for Henry’s great-grandson and the company’s executive chairman Bill Ford to build upon the family heritage, and a role he was born to play.
But more than just a figurehead in Ford’s mobility strategy, the company scion has for years been the driving force and visionary behind the automaker’s recent shift. And while Ford unveiled its Smart Mobility initiative at CES in 2015, the origins of its all-in approach to this quickly emerging space goes back more than five years to Bill Ford’s 2011 Ted Talk, A Future Beyond Gridlock.
Based on an interview Bill Ford gave onstage earlier this week at the company’s Further With Ford conference at its Dearborn, Michigan world headquarters, the automaker’s mobility strategy has evolved over nearly a decade. And Henry’s heir has persistently promoted smart mobility using his public prominence as well as his bully pulpit within Ford. (You can view the entirety of the conversation in which Ford discussed everything from the company’s culture to the Detroit Lions’ auspicious season opener here.)
“I’ve been personally thinking about mobility for 10 years and what it means to the company” Ford said in the interview. In 2009 he started the venture capital fund Fontinalis Partners to explore the space even before mobility became a buzz word.
“I wanted to invest in what I was calling at the time transportation solutions,” he added. “When we started, about the only things to invest in were parking and municipal ticketing solutions. Now we’re seeing things like marine applications and marrying drones with autonomous vehicles. It’s quite interesting the number of entrepreneurs and the amount of money coming into what’s now called mobility solutions.”
But while Fontinalis can bet on everything from autonomous wind-and-solar-powered catamarans to nanostructured carbon, the Ford Motor Company has a responsibility to shareholders and the company’s bottom line as it moves into mobility. And this week, Ford said it expects profits to decline in 2017 as a result of increased investment in mobility solutions as well as electric vehicles.
Ford said that he and the company’s executive team are “spending a ton of time” contemplating where the company should invest in mobility. “I’m part of management, but I’m also part of the board,” he said. “So I feel like I have a lot of the same discussions twice, which is great because I don’t think you can have enough of them.”
Ford acknowledged that “where we are at this stage of our evolution is that we are going to try a lot of different things, and obviously at the end of the day we have to build a business.” But he added that the company’s mobility strategy by nature needs to be fluid.
“The one thing we cannot be is wed to a model and put a stake in the ground and then that’s it,” he said. “Conversely we also can’t be like kids in a candy store and just grabbing everything that we see coming along.” The challenge, he added, is finding “the robust business model as opposed to interesting experiments that are kind of cool but there’s no way we’ll ever make money at it.”
Ford recognized that “everything we’re doing and thinking about is far afield from a traditional car company. We’re disrupting the way … people access vehicles, the ownership model. But rather than look at it as something that is scary, I think it’s a terrific opportunity.”
When asked what Ford will look like in 2025, he replied, “Anybody who tells you they know is lying. One thing I do know is that there will be many different business models, lots of different partnerships, many of which will be non-traditional for an OEM. And you’ll have different income streams as a business than you do today.”
Ford ended by bringing it back to the still powerful influence of the company’s founder. “I think a lot about what’s the mission of a company,” he said. “If I go all the way back to my great-grandfather, he believed the only purpose of a company was that of service to society. That’s always resonated with me since I was a child growing up,” Ford added. “It has to be reinterpreted for the period you’re in.”
Originally published by Forbes.com