NAIAS: Ford's Head of Mobility Says Foray into Microtransit Proved Valuable

Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor — 

Detroit’s North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) pulled back the curtains for a media preview Monday and Tuesday before it opens its doors to the public next week.

Coming on the heels of CES—the annual technology conference in Las Vegas that has increasingly become the preferred venue for automakers to showcase their latest technology developments—the Detroit auto show is a more car-centric affair. However, as automotive companies strive to be seen as tech companies, there is also plenty of innovation to take in. (More on innovation from Ford’s head of mobility, Marcy Klevorn, in a minute.)

This is the last time that NAIAS will be held in January; in 2020, it will move to June, which should allow for more outdoor demonstrations and easier travel. As with the past two years, NAIAS is split into two parts: on the main floor, the usual parade of new vehicles and elaborate displays—heavy on trucks and exotics in 2019, with more fleet vehicles than in past years—and a smaller show on the lower level called AutoMobili-D, which highlights companies working to advance mobility.

Given its smaller size and more modest displays, AutoMobili-D is usually a little quieter than the rest of the show, but this year, it seemed noticeably more so. That might be because the bulk of the mobility-related panels and press conferences were scheduled for later in the week, but the divide between the two parts of NAIAS seemed starker than it needed to be this year.

While it’s impressive to see the concentration of mobility companies and the array of innovations they’re working on, all gathered in a single space, one might argue that integrating a bit more mobility tech into the main show would be beneficial to the industry, since one of its major challenges is gaining consumer trust and acceptance of developments such as self-driving cars.

Perhaps the biggest announcement at NAIAS so far was Tuesday’s news that Ford and Volkswagen have struck a new collaboration to co-develop technology and vehicles. In a press release, Ford characterized the arrangement as “a broad alliance that positions the companies to boost competitiveness and better serve customers in an era of rapid change in the industry.”

No money or ownership stakes will change hands, but the two automakers said they will work together to develop commercial vans and mid-sized pickups, as well as share resources on autonomous vehicles (AVs), electric vehicles, and other technologies meant to shape the future of mobility.

Mobility has spawned multiple big partnerships between carmakers and tech companies, a new path for the traditionally hyper-competitive auto industry. With so much money at stake—and well-resourced players such as Google and Uber fighting to bring self-driving cars to market—some analysts think these kinds of partnerships among car companies will only increase as AVs get closer to reality.

The Ford-VW alliance has been reported as the largest of its kind. Ford said it intends to engineer and build larger commercial vans for European customers, while Volkswagen plans to develop and build a “city van.” Michelle Krebs, an executive analyst for Autotrader, told The Guardian that the alliance comes at a moment when both companies are in flux as they invest billions in new technology, AVs, and mobility services.

“The cost of developing these technologies is high and nobody knows when there will be a payoff,” Krebs said. “It’s all expense and no clear path to profit.”

The murky path to mobility-driven profits came into play in a pair of other recent Ford announcements. We had a chance to chat with Marcy Klevorn, who oversees Ford’s mobility unit, about the news that Ford has shut down its Chariot shuttle service, as well as pulled resources from bikesharing in favor of scooters. We also talked about ongoing renovations at Michigan Central Station, the abandoned behemoth of a train station in Detroit that will serve as the centerpiece of the automaker’s mobility operation once construction is complete, pegged now for 2020.

Klevorn also confirmed that Ford plans to have a commercial vehicle capable of level 4 autonomy on the road by 2021, even as others in the industry have backed off from such specific timelines in the face of technical challenges that are immensely difficult to solve.

Regarding Chariot, the now-defunct microtransit startup Ford acquired less than three years ago for $65 million, Klevorn said, “I view Chariot as a gift because we learned so much. We started Ford Commercial Solutions, a fleet data aggregation tool for small businesses and [Ford] partners , which wouldn’t have been possible without Chariot.”  These experiences taught Ford what fleet operators want, as well as how to work with cities on the implementation of transportation technology, she said.

“When you have a ride service, you have to work with cities to become part of the fabric of the community,” Klevorn said. “We used Chariot to learn about different business models and consumer preferences.”

Ford dropped its sponsorship of the Ford GoBike bikesharing program in San Francisco earlier this month, Klevorn said, as a result of Lyft’s July acquisition of Motivate, the company that makes the bikes. (Lyft didn’t want another company’s branding on its bikes, she added.) She also described Ford GoBike as a positive learning experience that taught the automaker more about micromobility.

In November, Ford bought electric scooter startup Spin for a reported $100 million. Klevorn says that decision was made because Spin “operates in a way consistent with Ford’s values,” and because scooters have become popular in urban areas. “The consumers have spoken—they take 240,000 scooter rides and generate $1 million in revenue per day,” she continued. “We listened to customer preferences—scooters work really well for first and last mile solutions over short distances.”

Klevorn called the extensive renovations on Detroit’s Central Station, which will eventually be the heart of Ford’s autonomous vehicle development efforts, “super exciting.” Ford’s plans call for the area surrounding the train station to be a “mobility lab. We’ll have a little community there to really start working with cities,” she said. Ford also plans to set up interactive displays inside the train station to showcase its latest mobility innovations.

In 2019, Klevorn predicts that the breathless anticipation surrounding self-driving cars will continue to level out. “The thread through CES was there’s a lot of hype, but it’s starting to settle,” she said. “2019 will be a year of execution, of putting together puzzle pieces to create a bigger puzzle.”