Apparently, This Is Ford’s Latest Project

Are Ford and GM earnestly preparing for the post-automobile future?


Detroit gave the world the mass-produced automobile. With torn up rail lines, anemic public transit, and a broad metropolitan expanse, Detroit may bet the major city least suited to living without the personal automobile. With that context, it feels discordant for Big Three automakers to get into the “mobility” game. But, that’s what’s happening.

Ford has been collecting mobility tech firms like it once did luxury British car manufacturers. The blue oval recently bought Spin, a dockless electric scooter company for nearly $100 million and plans an immediate implementation in Detroit. There’s also the “Ford GoBike” program in the Bay Area, a $65 million investment in the commuter shuttle service Chariot, and Jelly, another electric scooter research project with Purdue University.

GM, not to be outdone, is getting into the e-Bike business. The company has prototypes for compact and folding bike models. GM will award $10,000 to the winner of a naming competition. The company also has Maven, a peer-to-peer car sharing app, which will begin allowing competitors’ vehicles in 2019.

Are Ford and GM earnestly preparing for the post-automobile future? Or, is this two companies, primarily in the business of selling gasoline swilling pickups and SUVs, doing a little bit of PR?

The car ownership model will change in the long term. Urbanization is happening globally, whether or not millennials are “killing the suburbs” this week. The rub with developing autonomous vehicles is they immediately raise the question of why non-affluent individuals would bother owning their own car. But, it’s not clear Ford and GM are positioned to survive the next major recession intact, much less a dramatic recalibration of the industry.

Whatever the long-term benefits, those investments make PR sense right now. Mobility and future-facing tech are where the investors are. While Ford has a much better track record building cars than Tesla, Tesla’s stock sells for $340 per share to Ford’s $10. “Ford Expands Mobility Portfolio” is a better financial headline than “F-150 Sales Down Year-Over-Year.”

Besides shareholders, Ford and GM also need to seem cool and down with sustainability to attract talent. Ford may lob shots at Silicon Valley in ads. But, it’s also expanding its workforce there and reorienting its presence in Detroit to seem as young and tech-friendly as possible. Hey, look, we have e-scooters now!

Just as every oil company invests in an alternative energy future, large automakers will be redefining the future of mobility. Consider such investments a hit of vermouth to make the present reality, profiting from an outmoded, destructive, and still lucrative legacy businessfor decades to come, a little more palatable.

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