Skip to main content

Ford’s next mobility bets: carsharing, 3D printing, biomimicry

The automaker's Silicon Valley coming out party included a slew of new offerings related to carsharing, 3-D printing and self-driving cars.

It's rush hour on Wednesday morning, and a small convoy of luxury charter buses are departing San Francisco headed South to Silicon Valley.

No, it's not the daily crop of Google and Facebook buses hauling employees down Bay Area carpool lanes.

Rather, the black leather-interior shuttles have been commissioned to help mark the carefully-orchestrated debut of Ford Motor Co.'s newly-expanded Palo Alto R&D lab. The tour of the modern, industrial lab was folded into a three-day, invite-only event called "Further With Ford" — an annual automotive trend conference usually held closer to Detroit.

As automakers scramble to evolve their business models in the era of Uber, ZipCar and increasing anxiety about the environmental toll of existing transportation systems, Ford signaled this week that it's ready to go bigger on carsharing, 3D printing-assisted manufacturing and self-driving cars.

“Ford is taking a 112 year old company deeply rooted in industrial manufacturing and becoming a business led by software technology,” Ford CIO Marcy Klevorn said during the event on Wednesday.

Among the tech-centric deals announced this week: a Ford Motor Credit Company partnership with by-the-hour carsharing startup Getaround, where people financing new cars can help pay for the car by renting it out, along with an endeavor to 3D print car parts with the help of startup Carbon3D.

The emphasis on additive manufacturing and printing with unconventional materials also dovetails with increased emphasis on internal sustainability efforts, a major component of which is the use of organic materials, like foam made with algae or soy.

The company's key objective in advanced materials also happens to ring true for its new software technologies and autonomous vehicle research.

"How do we move beyond just prototyping?" said Ellen Lee, Ford's additive manufacturing research team leader.

Navigating change


Ford first planted a flag in Silicon Valley with the opening a small software-focused research group near Stanford University in 2012.

The move to double down on its investment in the auto industry's growing tech hub in the region comes as automakers around the world increasingly dabble in startup investing and on-demand mobility services.

Ford Palo Alto research center
The competition in these areas is steep. Automakers like BMW and Mercedes-Benz set up Silicon Valley R&D shops in the early 1990s, giving them a head start on attracting talent and establishing tech partnerships. Now, non-traditional players like Google and Tesla (the latter being Ford's new neighbor) are already leading the industry on EVs and autonomous vehicles.

Throughout the Ford event, the impending transformation in automotive business models loomed large.

"Our company has actually been warning that that freedom of mobility is now actually being threatened particularly in light of four megatrends that are affecting the future of transportation," Ford CEO Mark Fields said in San Francisco on Tuesday. "We are doing something about it. We see this as a huge opportunity."

Fields focused his remarks on the evolution of the company's 25-point "Smart Mobility Plan," which consists of everything from increasing the efficiency of corporate car fleets to testing out electric bikes and on-demand bus service.

Along for the ride at the event on Wednesday were a slew of young entrepreneurs, like Pashon Murray’s closed loop urban gardening initiative Detroit Dirt. She spoke alongside millennial business celebrities like Reddit Co-Founder Alexis Ohanian and e-commerce entrepreneur Sophia Amoruso.

In many ways, the meandering trend discussions of the day hinted at the sweeping change afoot in the automotive industry — and the confusion among automakers as to how to deal.

Reddit Alexis Ohanian
Reddit’s Ohanian offered the following during a wide-ranging talk about the generational forces that shaped the millennials who now frequent Reddit: “We want authenticity because for so long we just got bulls***.”

On the topic of self-driving cars and automation, IBM futurist Genevieve Bell laid out the phsychological hurdle for automakers and others interested in robotics.

“It’s almost about what happens when things come to life. That’s not without a persistent sense of anxiety,” Bell said. “The Furby could talk. Siri had the promise of listening. The next thing we imagine [robots] will do is hunt us down and kill us.”

When it comes to the existential threats facing car companies, Ford's executives insisted that there’s still a major role for individual vehicles to play, particularly with millennials.

“They don’t hold a car as a status symbol like the baby boomers did,” said Sheryl Connelly, the company's manager of global consumer trends and futuring. “But they do see it as a lifestyle enabler and a utility.”

Hitting the gas

The challenge facing Ford, its fellow automakers and the gaggle of tech firms rushing to sell them new hardware and software packages: weeding out novelty bells and whistles from tools with real transformative potential.

On the consumer end of the spectrum, there are add-ons like optional mobile apps or hardware systems that could direct customers to specified gas stations, parking lots or other businesses — a service for which an automaker and the tech provider could claim a fee, as executives at software giant SAP were happy to explain during the Ford event.

Another possibility SAP is exploring in the automotive space is using sensors on vehicles to extract data on average speeds and other safe driving indicators as a way to dole out lower insurance premiums (or, in darker scenarios, to provide data to crash investigators).

Other products could have more explicit sustainability applications, from efficiency-focused parking applications that promise to cut emissions to the remote control of carsharing vehicles that need to be repositioned.

Ford is also looking to wider implementation of 3-D printing technology that could disrupt the current model of storing (often underutilized) repair parts in a large warehouse — a market Hewlett-Packard and others are already chasing.

 “This is going to transform manufacturing as we know it,” said HP’s Tim Weber, vice president and general manager of advanced technology and products. “You’re going to be using less materials. The customer gets (parts) immediately, and companies don’t have to keep them on their books.”

One area where Ford may be uniquely positioned to get ahead of the curve is advanced materials design, both in the realm of 3D-printed materials and other alternatives to traditional materials.

money Ford materials
The company is already experimenting with shredded dollar bills taken out of commission and shredded, which can be compressed into plastic-like compartments. Wheat straw, recycled plastic bottles, tomato fiber and tomato plastic are other materials that have already made their way into Ford cars.

Many of the materials come from existing supply chain waste streams, making them cheap to procure — and opening a wide range of other options for the company to pursue.

"It's amazing how inefficient we are," said Debbie Mielewski, Ford's senior technical leader for materials sustainability.

The company's next frontier will be trying to translate materials innovation to 3D printing. New startup partner Carbon3D uses a unique Continuous Liquid Interface Production (CLIP) technology, which works with a delicate balance of UV light and oxygen and opens new doors for the versatility, durability and speed of advanced manufacturing.

With this new potential capability, advanced manufacturing team lead Lee (also a veteran of the company's sustainable materials division) hope to try out new types of biomimicry-inspired materials.

"Bone is the ideal material," Lee said, because of its immense strength for its light weight. "(A material) could look solid but have the structure inside."

More on this topic