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Looking into the future of Ford

Futurama: Sheryl Connelly (left) predicts that Ford will need to adapt to the changing attitudes and needs of the consumer to be able to thrive in a future where the role of an automobile will be drastically different.

Ford’s futurist dishes on what is down the road for the Blue Oval

9 Nov 2015

ENVIRONMENTALLY sustainable vehicles and ride-sharing are on the horizon for Ford as it looks to emerging forms of mobility and the shifting attitudes of consumers, according to the Blue Oval’s global consumer trends and futuring manager Sheryl Connelly.

Ms Connelly, who was in Melbourne to speak at a special TEDx event about the future of transportation, specialises in political, technological, ecological, economic and social patterns around the world and told GoAuto “we [Ford] need to think of ourselves as a mobility company”.

“Of course we are a car manufacturer, that is the lifeline of our company, but when you start to reframe it under this umbrella of mobility, it certainly opens up some interesting possibilities,” she said.

The “possibilities” Connelly refers to include a stronger push towards electric and hybrid vehicles, along with developing more efficient petrol and diesel engines, in an effort to become an environmentally sustainable car-maker.

“Nobody really knows what the future of energy is. Of course, low emissions will be part of it, we will have to come up with ideas that work in that context of sustainability matters in which Ford holds paramount,” she said.

“Our approach has been what I call a parallel ‘path of innovation’. We’re trying to improve … your regular gas engine with things like EcoBoost and high-tech diesel, we have hybrid vehicles as well as the pure electric vehicle.

And with all of these we are constantly trying to challenge ourselves to lower our emissions.”

Ms Connelly sees the sustainable change as a “global mandate” and is a very important for Ford to remain relevant in the future.

“Today the global population is seven billion, during our collective life time, it will easily hit nine, ten, some people say as high as 11 billion people by 2050 and we are already at resource constraint issues today,” she said.

“So they [sustainability concerns] are likely to become more acute and more pervasive in the coming decades, so I think if you really want to be a true innovator, you can only do it with means that are sustainable, if you really want to have staying power.”

Ms Connelly also predicts a shift in the role a vehicle traditionally occupies as perceptions change, and added that “people will have to rethink things”.

“Traditionally, you own a car and use it for all tasks, all opportunities, but I think in the future, it will be context-orientated,” she said.

“At least in the US, when you were 16, getting your driver’s license was like a milestone, a rite of passage into adulthood. But today, young people don’t see it that way, there is a behavioural change, and part of it is because they are so busy.

“The car is not the quintessential universal status symbol it was once recognised as. If you ask someone under 20 years of age what their most important possession is, they will more likely turn to their phone.”

This change in attitude will give way to car- and ride-sharing, according to Ms Connelly, as communications technologies emerge to make it easier. She gave the example of an app in which you could input your destination to see who else is headed in the same direction to team up, split costs and better utilise the space in a car.

Ms Connelly said a shift in consumer attitude about ownership would mean Ford needs to adapt its products to suit, and the idea of “mobility” rather than transportation was first touched upon by Ford president and CEO Mark Fields at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) where he announced the Smart Mobility Plan and 25 experiments designed to “change the way the world moves”.

“We think ideas about multi-modal forms of transportation or rethinking what ownership means and access is very powerful because it gives people access to things that they might not otherwise be able to afford, and if financial restrictions aren’t what is holding you back, you might just want to live a lifestyle that is streamlined and simplified, so that you don’t have the responsibility of ownership,” she said.

“Innovation moves at a pace that is so wickedly fast, that it sometimes keeps people out of the marketplace because they are worried they will buy into scheduled obsolescence.

“These things have combined in a way that have given a rise to the collaborative consumption, the sharing economy, we call it the no-strings attached way of consuming, and the reason I think above all that we will have staying power is because it’s a sustainable model.”

However, although the future appears to be geared towards convenience and sustainability, Ms Connelly said she believes there will always been room for the driving enthusiast.

“I think that it’s there, the car enthusiast is wonderful, but their ability to express their passion is going to be limited sometimes and there is going to be more distractions today for a variety of reasons from three, five, 10 years ago,” she said.

“We still believe in the convenience that it provides, we don’t even call them safety features. We are just trying to make the driving experience more intuitive and to give you those little nudges to say ‘hey I don’t know if you noticed’. That’s an important balance.”

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