The Hottest Trend at This Year’s Detroit Auto Show? Not Cars

There is never an official theme at the annual North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), held last week in Detroit, but one usually emerges as automakers showcase their latest innovations, hoping to one-up each other while garnering consumer and media interest. One year it was electrification; another year, it was infotainment. This year, the buzzword capturing the imagination of the automotive industry was mobility.

Mobility, as defined by the auto industry, refers to getting goods and people from point A to point B. This encompasses vehicles for personal use, fleet vehicles, public transit, ride-sharing, bicycles, car-sharing, self-driving cars, planes, trains, and essentially any other form of motorized transport. It often includes an on-demand component.

This year’s auto show was also notable because it seemed to be the first time that automakers saved their big innovation announcements for CES, the massive consumer electronics show that takes place in Las Vegas the week before NAIAS. Car manufacturers increasingly want to be thought of as technology companies, which means we’ll soon see an even bigger automotive presence at events like CES, SXSW Interactive, and TechCrunch Disrupt. Tesla, the car company practically synonymous with innovation, didn’t even bother to come to NAIAS this year.

As the auto industry tries to adapt to the lightning-quick production cycle of the consumer electronics world and how that cycle has come to affect customer expectations, car manufacturers are staring down another big potential problem: those wacky millennials seem to have less interest in owning cars than any modern generation before them. (At least they do right now, though many an automotive bean counter dearly hopes that changes assuming they start getting married and having kids.) And because millennials are such a big group—bigger even than the baby boomers—that means the auto industry’s traditional vehicle ownership models are in need of serious reconsideration.

Dan Ammann, GM’s president and head of Maven, its new mobility arm, said during a media conference call last week that the auto industry will change more in the next five years than it has in the past 50, and not just because of autonomy. Automakers are scrambling to cope with the coming sea change that results when people stop buying cars but have no less need for transportation. The question the car companies are now contending with is how they can monetize this brave new world. The first step, they seem to agree, is to get potential customers familiar with their brand, even if they must do it through, for instance, a partnership with a ride-sharing service.

The first automaker I heard make the business case for mobility, way back in 2012, was Ford. Between this year’s CES and the Detroit auto show, Ford made a plethora of mobility-related announcements that suggest it continues to be at the forefront of the company’s growth strategy. Ford went so far as to call itself an auto company transforming into a mobility company in its press release introducing FordPass, a new platform launching in April that it says “will do for car owners what iTunes did for music fans.”

“Several years ago, Bill Ford starting promoting mobility trends due to the challenges the consumer is facing around congestion and freedom of movement,” said Erica Klampfl, global mobility solutions manager at Ford. “We launched our Smart Mobility plan last year, and [Ford CEO] Mark Fields is helping us transform the company to help address changing customer needs. Now we’re seeing a lot more activity in the industry around mobility, which is validating. It makes business sense, but it also helps human progress.”

FordPass allows any member—it’s free; no Ford ownership necessary—to find and pay for parking in advance, borrow and share vehicles when traveling, schedule service appointments, review Ford Credit vehicle finance account details, and access vehicle features. FordPass members can also get rewards from partner merchants such as McDonald’s and 7-Eleven, and they’ll have access to FordGuides, personal assistants “available day or night to help resolve mobility challenges” at the touch of a smartphone button. (In the press release, Ford takes pains to note that FordGuides’ “only job is to guide, serve and help solve mobility challenges—not to sell,” though one must assume that if a Ford solution exists, it will be mentioned first.)

“FordPass will allow us to engage non-traditional customers that don’t own cars,” Klampfl explained. Ford is currently running a couple of car-sharing pilots both here and abroad, and it’s keenly interested to find out which models consumers flock to. In India, Ford is experimenting with shared access, where three to six people share the same leased vehicle.

At its Dearborn, MI, headquarters, Ford is developing its own ridesharing technology … Next Page »

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