Can millennials get the best of travel without having to deal with the pitfalls of ownership? This question might sound scary for an automaker to ask, but Ford Motor Company is diving into the fray with its Smart Mobility program. In a conversation with Autos Cheat Sheet, Ford’s Futurist Sheryl Connelly dug deeper into the concepts that the automaker has been exploring in recent years. Here are some highlights from our conversation with her.
Autos Cheat Sheet: With the need for better transportation solutions in urban centers, can you explain why large projects like New York’s Second Avenue subway or the underground train system in Buenos Aires have stalled or been delayed so long?
Sheryl Connelly: It’s all about timing. Right now there are patterns in urbanization, changing attitudes about status and ownership, and other concerns bringing the issue of mobility to a head. Only in the last couple of years have we actually had a population that’s more urban than rural. At no point in history has that ever happened. Meanwhile, innovation is moving much more rapidly.
Right now, at this moment, people are paying attention to mobility in ways that are less singular and focused than in the past. Whereas before it may have been a subway, now you see Ford exploring multi-modal forms of transportation. We are trying to be part of the solution that includes things like e-bikes, mass transit, car sharing, individual ownership, even understanding pedestrian routes. So our partners include everyone from urban planners to health specialists and bike makers. Wrap all that up in the universe of connectivity and you try to find ways to bring it to reality.
Autos Cheat Sheet: Reading through the 2015 Ford Trends Report, the evidence seems convincing that millennials are open to car sharing and different ways of traveling in general. Why do you think these programs have not already gone into effect and what (if anything) has hampered the development of the sharing economy?
Sheryl Connelly: Part of it is that innovation moves so fast. It can be very risky when you invest in innovation. Think about your cell phone. I have an iPhone 5, my kids have an iPhone 6, we all know there is a 7 and 8 coming down the pipeline. So when do you decide to buy? When do you pull the trigger? You have to find the right time where value and cutting-edge technology meet and consider how long it will hold into that label.
On the other hand, consider the global recession. The millennial generation that were raised during a period of economic prosperity have an appetite for the finer things yet may not have the financial resources to enjoy them. Now that they are not being supported by their parents, many are trying to find ways to access the finer things. Ultimately, they don’t care if they own these things as long as they have access to them.
It’s very different from previous generations growing up in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, where there was a stigma about buying something secondhand or renting it or borrowing it. Nobody looks at the world through that lens anymore, and I think it’s a wonderful thing. This is why Ford is spending so much time with our 25 global mobility experiments announced in January. We wanted to understand more about three areas: mobility in an urban context, big data, and autonomy.
We’re taking those learnings and trying to put them into action, but we’re not done. Ford is bringing 30 new startups to Detroit over the next three years. [Techstars Mobility brought the first 10 to Detroit in June.] We recognize that innovation that affects our industry may not be born in our industry.
Autos Cheat Sheet: Since ownership is becoming less of a priority for millennials, has there been a place that money is going specifically or do you see people under 40 simply trying more of what’s available?
Sheryl Connelly: I’m not sure we know exactly where they are spending their money, but we know the five areas where millennials are most willing to share. After books, they are most open to ride sharing. As individual consumers, we’re much more savvy about where we spend our resources. There’s the old saying, “Why buy a cow when you can get the milk for free?” Well, why buy the car when you can rent it, borrow it, loan it, lease it?
And it’s not just on the consumer side. Think about the supply side. Ford Credit is helping drivers take things they own and helping monetize them [with Peer-2-Peer Car Sharing]. If you think about Uber, think of how it is a second job for so many drivers.
Autos Cheat Sheet:When I saw you speak at Advertising Week in New York [in 2013], you spoke about autonomy and self-driving cars as they relate to the world’s aging population. How is that development playing out?
Sheryl Connelly: We are getting closer and closer to an autonomous vehicle every day, and there are features built to serve the needs of the aging population. However, the other side of autonomy is that people have better things to do with their time. There was an interesting study by Frost & Sullivan that showed the average speed traveled around the world was about 25 miles per hour.
When you think about driving in that context, it’s very hard to feel that thrill of the road — that American idea of open highways, wind in your hair, pedal to the metal. That’s not the reality of our daily commute. That’s where I think people are saying, “We’ve got better things to do with their commute time.” Global technology coming into cars can help. I can be online reading a report or watching video or checking in on my loved ones.
We’ll still build a car that’s fun to drive, but we’ll also think about a car that’s fun to ride in as well. If you’re riding in a car for an hour and a half, would you rather be staring at traffic or would you rather be in a situation where you could make more of your time?
A special thank you to Sheryl for giving us her time and this opportunity.