Future Present

Smart Mobility

The future of the automotive industry has been getting a lot of press lately. It’s starting to sound as if  self-driving cars are (umm…) just around the corner.  But the future of mobility is going to be a lot more than just autonomous vehicles. It’s about how new technologies and services can be used to solve hard problems for future contexts. It’s going to be about design.

The problem stems from a series of long-term trends that are leading us to crowded, polluted, traffic-choked megacities — places that aren’t going to very fun places to live. In his TED talk, Bill Ford refers to this as global gridlock. And the US DOC’s recently published report Beyond Traffic begins:

The year is 2045. A driver sits in traffic for hours, which may have been common in Los Angeles a generation before. But this particular driver lives in Omaha, Nebraska. In 2045, Omaha is the new LA.

(The Verge’s post 6 reasons to be terrified about the future of transportation gives a good summary of the report.)

Source: Beoyond Traffic
Source: Beoyond Traffic

Because the problem is so big, there’s a ton of of innovation taking place. New and disruptive services (think Uber or car2go) are changing the equations of car usage, ownership, and insurance among other things. Cities are rethinking their role in sustainable mobility. Big data is revealing insights and new opportunities. So while the problems are increasingly clear — nobody knows which solutions will stick. It’s a sort-of wild-west.

Somehow I’ve found myself working in this space a lot. For years I worked at BMW’s DesignworksUSA helping envision future vehicle concepts. And lately I’ve been working with Ford — which has taken a unique approach…

A couple weeks ago, at CES, Ford’s president & CEO Mark Fields revealed their Smart Mobility plan. A part of their Blueprint for Mobility, it’s Ford’s way of using innovation to advance the company in a future of rising urban mobility challenges.

What’s unique, especially for a company like Ford, is that rather than announcing a new product, Ford revealed a suite of 25 different experiments. Each is a way for the company to understand and test new ideas, technologies, or services.

The global scope of the experiments.
The global scope of the experiments.

Ford describes the experiments as falling into three categories:

  • better customer experience
  • flexible user-ship models
  • social collaboration

The category names may not be very lovable, but they’re reasonable descriptors for the opportunity spaces. And they address possible solutions to trends that, unsolved, will make our future mobility quite limited and difficult.

The experiments, as they’ve been released, are a bit rough. They’re works in progress. They don’t yet have findings or conclusions. But what’s remarkable is that they’re being made public. It’s a bold move for Ford — and very different from most automotive firms which tend to keep much of their long-term work secret. There’s a humility and openness to this approach. And a willingness to engage with others.

I’m excited about this because I’ve been working with Ford to help guide the user experience and design of many of these experiments.

Design is critical here because the future of mobility isn’t just about coming up with a new technology or service. It’s about creating experiences that will capture people’s imagination and get them excited. We need people to want to use these new things. As I’ve written before, you don’t do this by creating minimum viable products (MVPs). You need to start with minimum awesome products (MAPs).

Ford's Dynamic Social Shuttle
Ford’s Dynamic Social Shuttle

We’re also experimenting with design approaches and processes. Why? The automotive industry is facing radical disruption. To survive it needs to learn how to adapt. It’s not just about inventing a new thing. It’s learning new ways of discovering new things. And so every project is also an exploration into process and ways of designing.

Personally, it’s fascinating stuff. Not only have I been working with various internal teams and stakeholders, I’ve been working with a wide range of external agencies. Every group has their own process, methods and approaches. And so there’s an ongoing need to translate across cultures, as well as opportunity to learn from each other. By working across a wide range of projects, there’s the opportunity to “cross pollinate” and share key learnings between the experiments as well as bubble them up to shape future work and, eventually, impact product design.

Stay tuned, I’ll try and share more in future posts as the experiments develop.

City Driving On-Demand, London
Ford’s City Driving On-Demand, London

Update: June 2015
The Mobility section of Ford’s Sustainability Report 2014/15 has additional/updated information.

Update: May 2016
While most of the work is still confidential but here are some highlights of what has launched or been made public:

This car-sharing pilot in London is the first that allows one-way journeys with guaranteed parking at the user’s destination. (Here is the official website. And research partner Plan has more information on their site.)

Dynamic Shuttle
An innovative platform for transport services that pick up and drop off passengers along a route that is dynamically computed based on the demands from users.

Multimodal Transportation
We’re doing a lot of work to help people choose and connect multiple modes of transportation based on their individual needs. This New York Times article The Commute of the Future? Ford Is Working on It gives a nice overview of some of that work.

University Projects
I’ve been the project lead on three university sponsorships. 1) At CMU students explored future interaction design possibilities; 2) SVA students explored future service design opportunities; and 3) Parsons students used design speculations to approach future mobility problem-solving from nontraditional avenues. (The Parsons students documented their work with this website.)