Ford’s Plan to Do More Than Just Sell Cars

January 12, 2016, 9:43 PM UTC
Courtesy of Ford Motor Co.

Talk to Ford CEO Mark Fields for more than five minutes and he’ll mention mobility—and more than once. It’s part of his strategy to steer the company beyond just selling cars to new unconventional areas related to helping customers get around town.

On Monday, Fields introduced several initiatives including a free mobile app called FordPass that are part of his broader transportation plan. Introduced a year ago, the so-called mobility strategy involves building cars with Internet connectivity, developing autonomous vehicle technology, and using big data collected from sensors in cars to learn more about how people travel.

Ford’s press conference at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Monday covered nearly every transportation angle—aside from flying in a plane. The company introduced several pilot projects like a leasing program that lets up to six people share a car and a new lab for scientists to develop new driver-assistance technologies that rely on data provided by wearable devices like smartwatches.

The automaker also announced a partnership with IBM to work on a pilot platform that lets researchers examine small streams of data—10 or 15 seconds at a time—to spot patterns, correlations, and trends. Ultimately, the goal is to help drivers do things like find open parking spaces and faster transportation alternatives to beat gridlock.

WATCH IT: Ford wants to take its time with autonomous vehicles

FordPass is an app that is supposed to serve as a sort of Swiss Army knife for transportation. It helps drivers find and pay for parking, borrow and share vehicles when traveling, and schedule service appointments.

Starting in spring, customers in the U.S. and Canada will be able to download FordPass on their smartphones. The free app will roll out later this year in Europe, Brazil, and China.

Ford wants this free platform to be for car owners what iTunes is for music fans. It’s hard enough standing out in a sea of customer-service type apps. But developing a mobile platform that becomes the defacto stop for fickle consumers is particularly challenging. Ford thinks it’s possible and it’s even targeting non-Ford customers as part of its strategy.

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Ford is also opening several stores that it’s calling FordHubs. The first will open in Westfield World Trade Center in New York followed in the future by San Francisco, London, and Shanghai.

These urban storefronts are meant to be “experience centers,” marketing-speak for a store that is supposed to do more than sell merchandise. Such customer experience centers are incredibly difficult to pull off.

Apple and Tiffany & Co. have done well, but they also sell merchandise. Someone who pops in to “experience” an Apple store—lounge around, check out products, get devices fixed—can also buy something. Apple’s whole idea was to create an appealing place to be and to fill it with products around that the customer could look at, test, and ultimately buy.

Ford (F) seems to have a different plan. The company says there will be staff called FordGuides at each location to help customers understand transportation options that are available in their city. Visitors will be able to see a map that shows various transportation options including car-sharing and mass transit in real-time. These stores will also host special events like the unveiling of new Ford cars.

“These aren’t places where we’re trying to sell something,” says Stephen Odell, Ford executive vice president of global marketing, sales, and service “We want to hear people’s thoughts, and we want to show them what we’re doing to solve the transportation issues of today and tomorrow—and not just in their city, but around the world.”

In short, these aren’t revenue drivers—at least in the short term.

The details on this concept are murky. And it raises many questions including whether sinking money into a store that doesn’t really sell anything will pay off in the future.

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