Cars were a great idea until they started to destroy civilisation. Now the inventor of that technology is busy working on the next big transportation idea, one that might not kill us all. Yes, the American automaker is spending big bucks to help you get around — even if it's not in a Ford. In addition to the endless rumours that Ford is working with Google on self-driving cars, the automaker is dabbling in on-demand buses and launching its first car-sharing app in April. Now a New York Times story explains how Ford is working with design firm Ideo to envision the post-car generation of mobility. You know Ideo — the company that designed Apple's first mouse and laptop, and even Ford's interactive dashboards, through a proprietary process that the company calls "design thinking". Right now, Ideo is hard at work for Ford in London, Shanghai and Chicago, prototyping new products and services that might be as world-changing as personal motorised vehicles were in 1896.
In a narrative that sometimes reads like an Onion article, the NYT peeks into Ideo's Chicago-based lab where designers assign themselves various tasks in order to test the city's transportation options. One example: Get to a restaurant 6.5km away within 45 minutes while carrying heavy shopping bags, spending only $US10 for three people. But in addition to this seemingly frivolous exercise, the team also spent months tracking the transportation habits of people from all backgrounds in the three cities. Although Ford wouldn't say exactly what Ideo developed for them, it is being tested right now in Chicago, apparently.
While Ford certainly gets some congratulations here, it may be too little too late. Just now jumping on the car-sharing bandwagon, a full 15 years after Zipcar was founded, is patently ridiculous. Ford has waited so long it's not even the only domestic automaker thinking about this stuff. Last month GM announced a partnership with Lyft, which focuses on autonomous technology as well as an era of declining car ownership. Thinking beyond cars is definitely a business move. It's obvious that people will be buying fewer cars very soon, and Ford is simply preparing for that reality. But no matter what Ford rolls out, it's still years — decades — behind more progressive ideas already in motion.
It will also be interesting to see if Ideo can truly add something new to the multimodal transit discussion. LA just rolled out a trip-planning app backed by Xerox which helps users pick from itineraries which are "Sooner, Cheaper or Greener". However, what's truly incredible here is that a car company is taking the initiative to design that car-free future. Ford's finally realising what the rest of us have always known about great transportation: Being stuck behind the wheel of their cars, day after day after day, SUCKS. The future is all about having options.