Trendspotting with Ford: How the Auto Industry Prepares for the Future

Sheryl Connelly, whose title at Ford is “Global Trends and Futuring Expert,” doesn’t spend much time thinking about cars. Her mind is on big-picture global trends: what’s going on socially, technologically, economically, environmentally, and politically.

“My approach is, what are the things we have no control over?” Connelly says when reached by phone. “What is the range of possibilities? What are the drivers, the global market implications? I try to understand how things are intertwined and how they might affect the auto industry, and then I sit down with someone on the automotive side of the company.”

Ford held a conference in Dearborn last week that seemed to be the culmination of Connelly’s work and invited journalists and bloggers from around the globe to come learn about the latest trends in urbanization, eco-psychology, accessible design, and connectivity, and how those trends influence Ford’s product line. It’s all part of a larger effort by Ford, which just opened a new research facility in Silicon Valley, to let the world know that it’s thinking well beyond next year’s automobile models.

Connelly says the global trend that will be “one of the biggest challenges of our lifetime” is the aging of the population. This affects different parts of the world differently. In a few years, in the EU and elsewhere, there will be more people over age 65 than under 65. In China, policymakers are already thinking about something called the “421 dilemma”: Every child alive today will eventually be responsible for supporting at least four adults, whether parents or grandparents.

As the ratio of workers to retirees shifts, Connelly says, it will erode GDP in many countries and cause economic powers to shift. That’s why India, with one of the youngest populations in the world, is firmly on Ford’s radar. With only 29 retirees for every 100 workers, India could see the kind of explosive growth China has recently experienced , Connelly notes.

But aside from dictating which parts of the globe Ford should concentrate on, the aging of the population also influences design. Connelly says it’s not outside the realm of possibility that her young children and others in their generation will live past the age of 100. “If I think I’ll live to 105, how does that affect what I want designers and engineers to do to enable autonomy?” she asks.

Right now, Ford engineers are strapping on a kind of “space suit” that allows them to feel what it’s like to live in an old body. Cars will have wider doors, more sensors to keep the driver from getting into an accident, and a camera that gives 180-degree angles for drivers who have trouble turning their necks. “But the key is we can’t say we built this car for old people, so the engineers have to do it through universal design.”

The other big emerging market of consumers is women, who now control 80 … Next Page »

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