Ford’s Sheryl Connelly Talks Auto Trends for 2016

Sheryl Connelly, Ford Futurist
Source: Ford

Sheryl Connelly, manager of global trends and futuring for Ford Motor Company, continues to influence the automaker’s long-term planning and strategy. Every year, she selects the data that goes into Ford’s trends report, a must-read for anyone interested in the next wave of technology as it relates to mobility and modern life. In an extended interview with Autos Cheat Sheet, Connelly spoke about the latest trends and what they mean for consumers in the short and long term.

Autos Cheat Sheet: We have been following your trends reports for several years now and notice how the needle moves by several degrees each time a new study emerges. More people are interested in car-sharing, more are open to autonomous driving, and more people are concerned about the environment than they were just two years ago. Do you notice any trends going the other way?

Sheryl Connelly: I think so. There is a tension between the benefits you get having greater connectivity (e.g., in flexibility and autonomy) and the tradeoffs. We talk about how technology can make life better in the trends report.  The other side is people resent being constantly connected and having the obligation to look at work emails during nonworking hours. There is a tension between these two elements.

I’m hoping for the sake of humanity that disconnecting wins out. We mention that a lot in this year’s trends book. Time poverty is a big issue. The average American spends 4.7 hours staring at some sort of screen. In previous years, we noted the “phantom phone” concept where people think their phones are vibrating when they’re not.

This year, we take the concept further with the phenomenon health experts call “text neck,” referring to the posture we’ve adopted where we’re always tilted forward and down to check digital devices. Long-term, this posture can impair your lung capacity by up to 30%.

Source: Ford
Source: Ford

These thing are powerful when you see they have a direct impact on your well-being, and it gives us pause. So we talk about mindfulness becoming extremely popular in recent years and we think that will continue for a while. Mindfulness has been around for centuries in the practices of yoga and meditation, but in modern times people are really seeing it as an antidote to a life that is overscheduled, harried, and anxiety-provoking.

We noted how Yahoo Japan is teaching meditation to senior leaders hoping to create a calmer, more productive, and more collaborative work environment. But we’re seeing it in even more unlikely places like airports, where there are mediation rooms and places to do yoga. My favorite example comes from international prison systems: There’s a Swedish prison teaching meditation to its most violent offenders. In Sweden, they actually have the lowest rate of recidivism (repeat offenders), so they attribute it in part to this approach of helping people channel their energy.

Source: Ford

ACS: That concept of “text neck” in the report struck me as frightening, and it also got me wondering. Are people looking down more now than they were when reading newspapers or checking laptops, the sort of things we did just a few years ago or a decade ago?

SC: I think so, and this goes back to your observation about trends continuing in degrees. You may remember a few years ago we talked about the myth of multitasking and the problems with distracted driving. But there was also the issue of distracted walking. In the report we talked about the number of incidences where people were reporting to the local emergency room because of something that happened while they were on the phone.

Cellphone-related pedestrian injuries had gone up 300% during that time. Particularly in places like New York, more than anywhere else I can think of. Just look outside your window and notice how many people are looking down at something else rather than watching where they are going. I do think it is a problem.

People who study trends say “for every trend there is a counter-trend,” and the counter-trend is people trying to be more purposeful with their time.

This comes up in a couple different ways, including what we call in the trends book the “Swiss Army Life.” Customers don’t want more stuff; they want things that deliver more utility. Durability, versatility, and quality are becoming the hallmarks for people when they shop for things that could cover multiple needs.

This trend can explain the rise and renewed interest in utility vehicles. Certainly the lower price of fuel is helping, but the appetite is there. Even millennials are prioritizing durability when shopping for vehicles. They indicate they are looking to hold onto their cars for 10 years or more. If that’s the case, then the utility appeal is obvious. They need something that will grow with them through different life stages.

On the other end of the spectrum, we think about retail and how people want the retail experience to be more meaningful when they spend time shopping. The old adage “life is the journey, not the destination” applies here. I wonder if we could move into a time in the retail world where the shopping experience is richer than the actual thing you’re buying, which would just be the artifact of some great experience.

We all love the notion that you can take buying something and turn it into a higher calling. I think that’s why the “buy one, give one” campaign at Warby Parker and Tom’s shoes [in which donations occur with every purchase] have such resonance. People feel like they are getting more out of their purchases than just a consumer product.

2016 Focus Electric Charging_mj
Source: Ford

ACS: The Swiss Army Life concept made me think of an electric car test I made last summer. We were parked at a charging station and had time to kill in a part of New Jersey that isn’t the most urban place, so we ended up walking a mile to get to the nearest restaurant. At the time I thought how useful it would be if I had a scooter or small Segway I could pop out of the trunk and just zip to the nearest destination. Is this concept behind Ford’s experiments in electric bikes and mini vehicles? Do you see these modes of transportation being combined in future products?

SC: Absolutely. We did research in a number of different cities for the 2016 Trends Book and one of them was Bangkok. In Bangkok, they have elevated trains to take people around the city but it’s that last mile they have to worry about. It’s not uncommon for people to bring scooters, bikes, or even skateboards onto the train with them.

[Ford CEO] Mark Fields talks about being a mobility service provider. We believe that cars are here to stay — they’re not going anywhere. But in the future where, when, and how you use your vehicle will be much more context-driven.

Battles that used to take place about who’s going to be the designated driver no longer matter in the advent of Uber or Lyft. There are times you want your own vehicle and times you don’t. The experiments we launched early in 2015 and the five more we brought out in recent months are helping us understand different components of that equation.

ACS: Another issue that popped up for me over the summer stemmed from car-sharing. In New York, where traveling on a weekend can be problematic, I used a car-sharing service to save time. Though I couldn’t leave Brooklyn and Queens, I drove this car from Queens to the last subway stop in Brooklyn before the East River. From there I took the train to cross into Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It ended up saving me time because I would have had to head south, cross a bridge, and redirect north otherwise. Do you see these solutions that ease transitions occurring to municipalities before new bridges and highways?

SC: I think major infrastructure is always going to be important for society, if only in terms of revenue generation and employment. In the last century, it was all about civil engineers who created the highways. I think we’re moving into a time when it’s going to be the urban planners that draw the map for how society evolves.

One of my favorite data points about the aging population and obesity is how the new cities are being designed to become walking communities. It’s not uncommon that cities with the highest walkability index have the highest real estate prices.

They are starting to look at that in terms of health and well-being. Some researchers believe you can design a city to cure obesity. There’s a tipping point they see when you walk to your destination rather than drive to it. If they can master it so all the services you need are all within walking distance, maybe that will change lifestyles so we are more active and less sedentary.

But having said that, I think that’s where the context of mobility enters the picture. Maybe you don’t use your vehicle then, but you still want to visit your family in a neighboring town, you want to take a trip cross-country … there are certain times when your car is the ideal mode of transportation.

I was just making a comparison yesterday about Uber and when hitchhiking was all the rage in the 1970s. In many ways Uber is modern-day hitchhiking except you know how the driver today treated the person who got in the car before you. I’m fascinated about how these things are coming together. Uber and Lyft are wonderful tools in terms of taking assets in a post-recession world and trying to get more use out of them. They optimize the use and also monetize it.

Source: Ford

ACS: Another thing that struck me in the trends report was the huge percentage of adults in India (84%) and China (78%) that said they see themselves buying a self-driving car in the future. Only about half that figure (40%) said the same in America. Do you feel that has anything to do with the effects of overcrowding and pollution in Asia? And will it take more dire warnings about climate and more congestion in the U.S. for that percentage to go up?

SC: It’s funny, I choose those numbers for the study and I was puzzled by them initially. You’re right that China and India showed a huge appetite for self-driving vehicles whereas the U.S. and U.K. [30%] were at the bottom of the scale. I think part of it is congestion in cities like Mumbai or Shanghai or Beijing, the Chinese capital where the average commute is five hours per day.

Surely the time of commute influences the numbers we see in the willingness of people to use self-driving cars. I also wonder — though I don’t have any scientific research to back it up — if the high number of road fatalities has something to do with it. Driving is a very dangerous endeavor in some parts of the world, and perhaps the interest in self-driving is partly because it’s viewed as a safer option. The technology can override some of the errors that take place.

I have friends who are multinationals living overseas and their companies will not insure them to drive a car in some countries. Their companies tell them they have to get a driver because it’s just too dangerous to drive there.

ACS: Another topic I wanted to bring up was the increasing urbanization and the increase in population of freelancers, most of whom are between the ages of 26 and 35. This trend would seem to lessen the need for high volumes of vehicles. Do you feel like automakers are transitioning to tech and mobility companies faster than we believed would happen even a few years ago?

SC: I do think it’s happening faster than we expected, and I’m really proud that Ford was the first automaker to show up at the Consumer Electronics Show. We were recognizing how these categories were emerging in ways that intertwined with one another.

Fundamentally, one of the questions Ford wants to answer is: What is the future of mobility look like? I feel like before you answer that question you have to explore what the future of work looks like. That’s where this look into the flexible economy comes into play. If people are telecommuting and job-sharing, the way we think about using our cars might change over time.

Source: Ford

ACS: Last but not least, I wanted to touch on the environmental impact of automobiles and waste in general. The trends report showed that 60% of adults under 35 felt guilty about the amount of waste they create (versus 45% of adults over 35). It seems like this generation is the one that will move the needle with respect to electric cars and new mobility solutions. Do you feel like millennials will be the generation that makes plug-in cars relevant in the mainstream?

SC: I hope so. It will be easier for millennials when you think about the infrastructure coming into play and concerns about range anxiety start to disappear. Ultimately, we don’t know exactly what the future of powertrains will look like. We believe while electric is the right solution in some parts of the world, biofuels might be the best solution in other places.

Not having a crystal ball, Ford has adopted a parallel path of innovation so our strategy is robust enough to dial up or dial down in any one of those areas. We can easily imagine a future where someone drives car to a train station, rides a train into the city, then rents a bike or takes a folding bike with them. But will we also have a future where someone drives the first mile on gas, then switches to biofuel once out of the city, and finally (when range anxiety is no longer a concern) switches over to electric?

Follow Eric on Twitter @EricSchaalNY