Ford Builds Mobility Operation in Detroit, Releases New Fleet Tools

When I moved to Detroit about a decade ago, the husk of Michigan Central Station loomed over the Corktown neighborhood as an unrelenting reminder of how far the city had fallen—a symbol of its ruinous post-industrial identity as emblematic as the Sphinx was to Egypt.

The conventional wisdom back then was that the old train station—constructed in 1913 by the same architects that built New York’s Grand Central Station, but unused since the ‘80s—was too big and sturdy to cost-effectively tear down, and too degraded to renovate without spending billions. (The abandoned building had been stripped by scrappers of most of its valuable materials, even the window frames, and was completely without lights when I first saw it. It was so derelict that once the water dripping into the lobby froze during winter, guys would play pick-up hockey games inside.)

So there Central Station sat for decades, slowly falling apart and attracting hordes of urban explorers, photographers, and fans of so-called ruin porn. A few years ago, the windows were repaired and a few lights installed, but there didn’t appear to be any real effort underway to rehab the building.

But then, a few months ago, Corktown residents began hearing rumors that Ford was interested in purchasing Central Station, in part to house its mobility operations. Theoretically, the automaker would also be able to lure more young engineers into the fold with a hipper location than its headquarters in Dearborn, about a dozen miles down Michigan Avenue from the train station.

Last week, Ford finally confirmed its plan to renovate Central Station and relocate roughly 2,500 employees there, including those working on autonomous vehicles and other mobility projects. The announcement event drew thousands and included a brief appearance by hometown rapper Big Sean. Ford kept the building open all weekend for free public tours, which reportedly drew more than 20,000 attendees, and it released renderings of what the space will look like in the future.

Central Station is just one of a handful of properties Ford has purchased in Corktown, increasing the value of an already rapidly gentrifying neighborhood overnight. Ford also plans to build hotel, retail, and residential space in the area surrounding the station. To say the news is causing local excitement is an understatement.

We recently caught up with one Ford mobility division rumored to be relocating to Corktown—a spokesman for the automaker declined to say for sure—called Ford Commercial Solutions. The 110-person division handles the company’s fleet business. Last week, Ford Commercial Solutions introduced two new products to give fleet managers better insights into how their vehicles are performing.

Both new products will be facilitated by Ford’s Transportation Mobility Cloud, an open platform that securely transmits and manages data to and from Ford vehicles.

“It’s a really exciting time,” says Lee Jelenic, CEO of Ford Commercial Solutions. “Fleets are important today, but in five years, when autonomous vehicles scale, they’ll need to develop new capabilities. By the end of 2019, every Ford vehicle will be connected through embedded modems. That gives us the opportunity to streamline fleet management services and help [fleet companies] run their businesses.”

The division’s new data services product is designed to help large corporate fleets, telematics service providers, and fleet management companies to transfer vehicle data from the car’s embedded modem to the cloud without the need for additional third-party hardware, Jelenic says. Fleets can access information such as GPS location, fuel use data, mileage, service alerts, driver behavior, and more. Ford has service agreements with Verizon Connect, Geotab, and Spireon, so fleet operators have a choice in telematics service providers, he adds.

“There’s no longer the need to worry about plug-in devices for Ford vehicles, which can be hard to update and easy to uninstall,” Jelenic explains. “It takes away a lot of the headache and cost for our partners and gives them access to [automaker]-grade data.”

The second new product from Ford Commercial Solutions is for fleets owned by law enforcement agencies, Jelenic says—a market that Ford dominates. The company is proud of its long history servicing police forces, which Jelenic describes as an example of where Ford “really gets it right. We realized we can take new connective capabilities and build something specific for them.”

Ford’s new law enforcement fleet tool uses information directly collected from vehicles and distills it into insights specific to law enforcement that Jelenic says can help improve efficiency and safety.

“It can monitor the health of fleets in real time and track emissions and wasted fuel,” he says. “It can also help to coach drivers on safety when they’re not in pursuit.”

Jelenic says Ford believes fully autonomous vehicles will first hit the market as part of commercial fleets. Its Transportation Mobility Cloud is being built by Autonomic, which Ford acquired in January, but it will be available to other automakers, engineers, and software developers, he notes. The open-source cloud will manage information flow and basic transactions among a variety of entities in the transportation ecosystem—service providers, vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, mass transit systems, and city infrastructure—so that “everyone will speak the same language and communicate.”

By offering an interoperable data platform to other automakers, Ford seems to hope to corner the market early. This desire to collaborate openly is still new to the traditionally hyper-competitive car industry, but Jelenic sees it from a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats perspective.

“Our products can help their customers get more out of their businesses,” he says. “All are looking to rapidly innovate and change.”

Trending on Xconomy