"We can't just keep putting more and more cars on the road," Ford's Erica Klampfl told the crowd on Monday, November at MIT's EmTech 2015. "People are having problems getting around."
Klampfl, the automotive company's global mobility solutions manager, spoke at the conference about how Ford is "focused on being a mobility company" and explained the business strategies they are testing to make this possible.
There are currently 28 megacities, with populations greater than 10 million, across the globe. By 2030, Klampfl said, there are projected to be over 40. This new landscape means increasingly congested roads.
"People in urban areas need new solutions," she said. Just last month, a massive traffic jam in Beijing left thousands of drivers stuck in their cars for more than ten hours. "These are crazy situations," said Klampfl, "impact people's ability to move around." Beyond easing our ability to move around, she said, decreasing congestion on the roads will have a positive impact on other areas like air quality, as well.
The number of middle class citizens, now at 2 billion, is also expected to double by 2030. "It's an economic marker," said Klampfl. "When people get to the middle class they usually aspire to buy a car."
Although these figures are accurate, the focus here is on China. It's worth noting the general consensus about the thinning of the middle class in the US.
"But the car is just one mode in the transportation ecosystem," said Klampfl. "We're interested in other modes." Mobility, for Klampfl, should expand to include travel for those who don't currently own a vehicle.
Ford has taken several steps to address these larger transportation issues. A big piece is a new focus on e-bikes. In June, they unveiled the MoDe:Flex, a versatile bike that can be used in different needs such as the road, mountain or city riding. Another is "GetAround"—in which customers who finance through Ford credit can allow vehicles to become part of a peer-to-peer carsharing service.
The company's innovate mobility series challenged cities around the world to solve different mobility problems, specific to local communities. In Mumbai, for example, the problem was how to get around in monsoon season. The solution: Using data you could get from the car. Windshield wipers, Klampfl said, could indicate heavy rain in different areas.
TechRepublic caught up with Klampfl for a few follow up questions:
Is today's new generation of driving-age kids as interested in buying cars?
People are getting their drivers' licenses later, or prioritizing having a smartphone over a car—especially in areas where people can get around without a car, or where it's an inconvenience to have a car. But, we do see a lot of kids who still want access to a car. In 2011, we started a partnership with Zipcar on university campuses. We want to get them excited about cars by having them on the campus.
What do Ford's experiments aim to find out about transportation?
One of the biggest things is that mobility means different things to different people. When we search for solutions, there are so many ways people think about mobility, and it changes between regions. There's no single solution. We saw people getting so excited by the e-bikes. It had started it as an innovation challenge, internally, thinking about how different transportation modes connect. For instance, you might start with a car and then walk and then bike the rest of the way. How can these integrate as a multi-modal journey? We received over 130 internal submissions from employees and picked three winners that served different needs.
Toyota just announced the creation of Toyota Research Institute, focused solely on AI. What kind of AI team does Ford have, and what is it working on?
Autonomous vehicles enable a lot of transportation solutions in future. Ford has teamed up with research partners at Stanford, MIT, and the University of Michigan, to use AI in our driverless cars. We have a vehicle on the road in certain areas driving around. We believe that technically autonomous vehicles will be out in around five years, but based on environmental and legislative restrictions, the timeframe could be affected. Right now, we're in an interesting research phase. We're trying to understand at what point, if you have a semi-autonomous car, does the driver get back in the loop? How do you bring them back in? What happens when you need the driver to take over? The technical capability is being developed but we still have these questions.
What makes Ford's approach unique?
We come at it from a social point of view and a business point of view. A lot of this started because [executive chairman] Bill Ford really pushed us from a human rights point of view to look at social issues.
How is it a human rights issue?
It's a human right to be able to get around. To take your kids to the doctor, [for example]. We want to help provide people with seamless journeys. Help them get from A to B, especially in cities where it's congested. We're looking at how we're part of that solution. We want to really help people, even if they're not in a car, with their journey.
- Ford is now a 'personal mobility' company: How the comeback kids are riding tech to a new destiny (CNET)
- 8 truths and myths of driverless cars (TechRepublic)
- Smart machines are about to run the world: Here's how to prepare (TechRepublic)
- Why AI could destroy more jobs than it creates, and how to save them (TechRepublic)
Hope Reese has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Hope Reese is a journalist in Louisville, KY. Her writing has been featured in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Playboy, Undark Magazine, VICE, Vox, and other publications.