Ford Offers New York a Better Way to Commute and Escape

A skyline view of New York, New York
New Yorkers may experience gridlock in every facet of transportation, but the first FordHub presents an alternative plan for future mobility | Eric Schaal/Autos Cheat Sheet

The view from the top of New York’s World Trade Center is as intimidating as it is epic. While you admire the city’s majesty from these heights, you also realize its transportation challenges. In 20 years, how will people navigate a city where cars, buses, and people already cover every square inch?

As of now, city officials have no solution. New York’s population continues to grow, and its subways get more crowded every year. What’s more, the nation’s largest public transportation system shows new cracks by the day. Ford Motor Company, the automaker that first tackled mobility issues in the early 20th century, is bringing its expertise to this considerable task.

At the opening of the first FordHub at the Westfield World Trade Center mall in New York, which featured a panel with Ford’s CEO Mark Fields, we witnessed the company’s official shift from Mustangs and F-150s to the more nebulous concept of “mobility solutions.” Here are the big takeaways from the January 30 event.

1. How a FordHub works

FordHub at World Trade Center
View of the entrance to the first FordHub inside the Westfield World Trade Center mall in New York, New York | Ford

Hubs are an integral part of FordPass, the automaker’s program designed to tackle modern transportation challenges. Using the eponymous app, you can access parking options, start your car, schedule an oil change, or find the best route home using multiple modes of transportation. Inside the hub, which Ford describes as a “brand experience studio,” consumers can configure (but not buy) a car, or see how they might cover the last mile of their commute. It’s a colorful, hands-on place with interactive installations for kids and grown-ups alike.

2. Mark Fields’s business case

Mark Fields, President and CEO of Ford, speaks at the North American International Auto Show on January 9, 2017 in Detroit, Michigan
Ford CEO Mark Fields sees an opportunity in mobility solutions | Scott Olson/Getty Images

After the FordHub media preview, Ford CEO Mark Fields sat down with Janette Sadik-Khan, New York’s former Department of Transportation commissioner, and other mobility experts for a panel discussion. While making his opening remarks, Fields stressed the business opportunity that was being presented here. “If we stick our head in the sand and ignore [trends in car ownership], we won’t be around another hundred years,” he said. He noted that automakers’ core business is currently worth $2.3 trillion around the world. And that car sharing, ride-hailing, and other transit options represent an additional $5.4 trillion business.

3. A more fluid city

FordHub at the World Trade Center in New York
This model imagines a multi-level city in which travelers move more freely | Eric Schaal/Autos Cheat Sheet

Inside the Westfield World Trade Center mall’s FordHub, visitors can encounter a model rethinking the usual street plan. The multi-level system removes stoplights and other traffic hindrances to get travelers moving faster. It may not be the most picturesque city in the world, but mobility issues disappear here.

4. Where fun and theory collide

First FordHub opens at New York's World Trade Center
Thousands of diecast model cars covered the walls of Ford’s new mobility hub exhibit | Ford

Since Ford cannot sell cars at hubs, the automaker emphasizes thinking differently about traveling around town. On a wall covered in diecast model cars of Ford vehicles, visitors can see everything from an original Model T to today’s powerhouse GT. Behind the display, arrows describe the current state of traffic. They also offer directions to fellow travelers.

5. San Francisco is next

A man sleeps as he rides the bus in London, England
Travel challenges like those experienced by commuters in London or New York City are a regular part of city life | Oli Scarff/Getty Images

While Ford’s first brand studio is in New York, the automaker naturally has its sights on other markets as well. Next on the list for a FordHub is San Francisco. While hubs in London and Shanghai were part of the original company plan, it’s not clear when or if they will happen. For now, San Francisco and New York present enough of a conundrum for any company hoping to improve modern mobility.

6. Your way home via gaming

The FordHub last mile game
New Yorkers’ ‘last-mile’ challenges get the gaming treatment at Ford’s brand experience studio | Eric Schaal/Autos Cheat Sheet

For those New Yorkers who depend on Manhattan for work and/or play but live deep in the other four boroughs (or on Long Island), “last-mile” challenges quickly multiply. So how do you find a faster way home when subway transfers or the Long Island Rail Road don’t make sense for your commute? In an interactive exhibit, FordHub visitors can play a game showcasing potential options. Maybe a shuttle gets you there part of the way, while a bike and footpath could be the final parts of your trip home.

7. No ride-hailing yet

Interior view of a Lyft driver and his passengers
A Lyft driver and her passengers | Lyft

With General Motors heavily invested in Lyft, and Fiat Chrysler reportedly working with Google on autonomous ride-hailing services, Detroit is on board with the next wave of mobility. However, Ford remains without a ride-hail partner. The automaker’s self-driving program is among the industry’s leaders, but at the debut of the first FordPass hub, there was no announcement of a ride-hailing partner from the Blue Oval.

8. No cars yet

Concept of FordHub
FordHubs may or may not have cars inside | Ford

When Ford first released its plans for the hub, there was a hot Mustang GT with racing stripes distracting visitors from the rest of the exhibit. But at Ford’s World Trade Center grand opening, cars were noticeably absent. A Ford spokesperson explained that while a hub may be the site of an event with a Blue Oval vehicle, the main point was to get people thinking beyond the usual dealership experience. Instead of seeing a shiny new Fusion and instantly turning their minds off, visitors might show more curiosity in a mobility experiment.

9. The Super Bowl ad to back it all up

If you think Ford is just teasing millennials with its technology offensive, we present the automaker’s advertisement that will air right before this Sunday’s Super Bowl 51. At a cost easily exceeding $10 million, Ford bought airtime just prior to kickoff for TV’s biggest event. It shows mobility challenges and other frustrations of modern life before switching gears and offering Ford solutions to some of the same problems. Of course, it’s all comes with a heavy dose of humor.

Connect with Eric on Twitter @EricSchaalNY