If there’s one thing that’s obvious about the the way people get from place to place, it’s that we aren’t doing it the same way we were 20 years ago, and it looks like the future is going to change even more. Technology is advancing at an incredibly rapid pace, and people’s changing interests and attitudes have led to major disruptors moving into the transportation space.
On one hand, you have Tesla Motors finally figuring out a way to make electric cars cool and selling customers on the promise of a gasoline-free future. Perhaps more importantly though, there’s Uber and the ride sharing services that have copied it. Taxi companies can complain about it all they want, but people keep using it, and it’s only getting more popular. There’s also Zipcar, which has become an extremely popular alternative to traditional car rentals.
Those companies may have already had an impact on how people get around, but the direction transportation is headed looks like it’s going to completely turn the traditional car ownership model on its head. Self-driving cars would theoretically be able to operate as inexpensive taxis. Public transportation will probably remain important, but with more options available, being car-less in the city will likely get even more affordable.
It’s going to need to get more affordable as well, because more Americans are moving to urban areas every year. It’s conceivable that transportation won’t change much in rural and many suburban areas, but with city populations growing quickly, something like driving a car to work or the grocery store is probably going to become significantly more difficult. City roads can barely handle the current flow of car traffic, and there’s no way they will be able to handle 50% or 100% more cars.
One solution to this problem is for people who live in and near cities to make a stronger move towards multi-modal transportation. While some of the solutions may turn out to be new, the concept itself won’t be new to most urban residents. Many train stations have areas for storing bikes, allowing commuters to ride to the train station, take the train to the stop closest to their office, and then walk the rest of the way to work.
While more people moving into cities and owning fewer cars might sound like a terrible trend for automakers, Ford is instead embracing the coming changes and thinks multi-modal transportation is the way of the future. It will probably still be selling pickup trucks by the boatload for years to come, but CEO Mark Fields is convinced he can also get his company out in front of future trends.
One of its potential solutions is a line of electric bicycles. While they’re unfortunately still a bit heavy, Ford’s e-bikes are collapsible, which means they’re easier to take on a bus or train. Instead of making them fully electric, the motors on these bikes are used to assist their riders while they pedal. It’s not just a more efficient approach to an electric bike – it’s also a way to help the riders stay healthier.
The bikes themselves also integrate fully with an iPhone app that allows them to provide riders with more information than they would normally have access to on a bike. The most useful part of the app is its ability to “harnesses real-time information regarding weather, congestion, parking costs, time, traffic and public transportation” to provide route combinations that save users time, money, or both. These e-bikes are intended to be stored and charged in the trunk of a car, allowing the driver to get close to a congested area by car and then go rest of the way with a combination of bike riding and public transportation.
It’s an interesting solution for what’s traditionally been a car company to come up with, but I think there’s a lot of potential with the idea. Bicycles are one of the fastest ways to get around a city, and having an electric assist will allow riders to travel greater distances without ending up exhausted and sweaty. The biggest question, though, is whether Ford will be able to get its prices low enough to attract a large number of buyers.
If the price ends up too high, Ford may find itself in competition with the used motorcycle market. Riding a motorcycle in the city isn’t exactly the same as using an electric bicycle, but it’s definitely an alternative to driving a car that has a lot of appeal to urban residents. If more states start to recognize the benefits of lane splitting for decreasing congestion and increasing rider safety, you’ll probably see a huge jump in the number of urban motorcyclists.
Ultimately, though, the concept of expanding options for multi-modal urban transportation is enticing. There’s no way to tell just yet how successful Ford’s e-bikes will be, but it may find out that its iPhone app is one of the most valuable assets it has in its future hunt for e-bike sales. You never know. In another 20 years, Ford could end up selling more bicycles than it does cars.