The Commute of the Future? Ford Is Working on It
On a brisk October day in Chicago, a few employees from the design firm Ideo left their office and headed to Knife & Tine, a restaurant about four miles away. The goal, besides lunch, was to complete the journey within 45 minutes, on a budget of just $10 for the whole group, all while carrying bulky shopping bags.
This was not a party game, but the kind of immersive research that defines the work of Ideo, a global design firm whose clients have included Samsung, 3M, Anheuser-Busch and, on this day, Ford.
Ideo has worked for Ford since 2005, developing software for its hybrid vehicles and designing the console of the Ford Fusion. Now, anticipating a future when Ford will have to do much more to survive than sell cars, the company asked Ideo to develop products focused on “multimodal transportation” — jargon for everything that isn’t driving, as in buses, subways, bike shares, water taxis, ride hailing apps and walking. By getting themselves to lunch without a car, the Ideo designers were hoping to gain firsthand insights into the strengths and weaknesses of the city’s transportation options.
Led by Iain Roberts, an Ideo partner who has worked with Ford for a decade, the three Ideo employees left the office at 11:45 a.m. with energetic optimism.
Mr. Roberts, who once designed vacuum cleaners alongside James Dyson, is originally from London but lived in Chicago for 12 years and knows the city well. The weather was pleasant, and Mr. Roberts led the team to a nearby dock for Divvy, the city’s bike sharing program. But Divvy charges first-time users $10 for a day pass — too expensive for the group of three. Checking Uber, Mr. Roberts reported that the trip would cost about $12 and take about 20 minutes. It was the fastest option, but still over budget. The subway was just $2.25 per person. If all went well, they could get to the restaurant in 44 minutes, on time and under budget.
After a short walk to a nearby subway stop, tickets were procured. After that, nothing went well. They had just missed a train. There were no screens showing when the next train would arrive. At one point, two maintenance workers ominously strolled down the middle of the tracks.
Ten minutes later, a train arrived, hot and rank with body odor. There was no cellphone service underground, meaning Mr. Roberts could neither distract himself by surfing the web, nor notify the friends he was meeting for lunch that he’d probably be late. At one station, the train stalled for five minutes with the doors open. On the platform, a police unit patrolled with a bomb-sniffing German shepherd.
The train began moving again, and after 40 minutes Mr. Roberts and his team emerged from a station less than a mile from Knife & Tine. The journey had frayed nerves, and rather than take the bus or walk to the restaurant, they decided to hop in a cab for a quick five-minute ride. The extra $10 blew the budget, but the team was only 10 minutes late.
To the Ideo designers, the arduousness of their simple crosstown journey illustrated just how fraught the “multimodal” terrain was. There was clearly room for improvement. The question was, could Ford be part of it?
“This is a complicated, gnarly problem with a complex ecosystem of stakeholders,” Mr. Roberts said. “It’s easy to use the word ‘multimodal,’ but when you sit in Chicago or Shanghai and experience it, it’s difficult.”
When Model Ts started rolling off the Ford Motor Company assembly line in 1908, there was no established market for a mass-produced automobile. But Henry Ford knew that the world was changing around him. “If I had asked people what they wanted,” Mr. Ford famously said, “they would have said faster horses.”
Ford is once again trying to anticipate the future. For a century, personal transportation has remained relatively unchanged — Americans rely largely on cars, and on public transportation to a lesser degree — but technology is allowing a new generation of companies to reimagine how people get around.
Car-sharing services like Zipcar allow urbanites to opt out of owning a car. Ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft do the same. Trip-planning apps like Google Maps and Moovit make public transportation easier to use. And the prospect of self-driving cars, under development by both carmakers and technology giants, led Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder, to speak openly of his hope that the technology would “reduce the need for individual car ownership.”
“Cars are expensive. There are all these new travel options. More things are getting delivered,” said David King, a professor of urban studies at Columbia University. “All of this adds up to a dramatically changing relationship with travel.”
Individual car ownership isn’t going to stall overnight. The big carmakers are reporting record sales and profits. But to be competitive for the next hundred years, Ford will have to do much more than just make cars, said Will Farrelly, who works on Ford’s “smart mobility” team in London. “We see these not as threats but as opportunities for our businesses,” he said.
Precisely what kinds of opportunities, however, aren’t yet clear. And when companies like Ford need to outsource their creativity, they hire Ideo. Best known for helping Apple design the computer mouse in 1980, Ideo today churns out websites, industrial products and even voting systems for companies and governments around the globe. Ideo helped Ikea reimagine the kitchen and the North Face redefine its apparel brand. The privately held firm, which has 10 offices and more than 600 employees, this month sold a minority stake to Hakuhodo DY Holdings, a Japanese conglomerate.
Ford is usually working with Ideo on one or two projects, and last summer executives at the carmaker decided to take on multimodal transportation. Ford had already dabbled in this area, experimenting with electric bike shares and car-pooling services. In April, the company will introduce FordPass, an app that offers a suite of services including car sharing and electronic payments for parking.
Starting in September, a Ford team led by Mr. Farrelly began working with Mr. Roberts and a handful of Ideo designers, with the loose goal of bringing a new product to market in 2016. There was no mandate to design a specific new app or service. Instead, the project started with questions.
“How to activate insights around latent mobility or multimodal needs?” Mr. Roberts said, in full business-speak mode. “How can Ford participate in that future opportunity space? Our goal is to provide ideas and solutions that future-proof Ford’s place in the market. This is by no means a blue-sky project.”
In other words, what can Ford create that isn’t out there already, and that will make money for years to come?
Research began in earnest in October, when teams of Ideo researchers set up shop in London, Shanghai and Chicago. In Chicago, along with Mr. Roberts, there was an artist, a data scientist and an interaction designer. These cross-disciplinary teams are a hallmark of Ideo, which takes a liberal arts approach to commercial product design.
The Ideo team connected with a half-dozen Chicagoans from diverse backgrounds. Among them was a 38-year-old whose short commute to her title insurance job involved a mix of driving, public transportation, walking and cabs. There was a 36-year-old doorman who relied on public transportation and walking for his 45-minute commute. And there was a 55-year-old who got to his job in the airline industry using public transit, cabs and his car.
For weeks, the Ideo team followed these people as they went about their lives, visiting their homes, taking pictures of what they carried in their pockets, tagging along during their commutes, and pestering them with questions like why they decided to take the bus rather than the subway. Similar work was being done in London and Shanghai, all with the aim of better understanding people’s behaviors and devising ways to improve their commutes.
When the Ideo team wasn’t following commuters, it was interviewing city planners and academics steeped in traffic data. And for good measure, the designers tried every conceivable mode of transportation in Chicago, even when going to lunch.
After strawberry salads and sweet potato gnocchi at Knife & Tine, the Ideo team set off to do some sightseeing. Its destination: “Cloud Gate,” the mirrored bean-shaped sculpture in Millennium Park, about five miles away on the lakefront.
For this leg of the journey, the goal was speed, with no financial constraints. Lazy after a heavy lunch, the team chose to take an Uber.
Two minutes after Mr. Roberts pulled out his phone, a black Lincoln MKC pulled up. It was a car Mr. Roberts knew well — Lincoln is owned by Ford, and Ideo had helped design the car’s touch-screen software. Admiring Chicago’s majestic lakeside architecture from the comfort of the S.U.V.’s black leather seats, Mr. Roberts was far more contented than he had been on the subway. But the fare was a steep $32.
Between excursions and visits with the local residents, the Ideo team reconvened at the office and tried to make sense of its data. Snapshots of the locals’ lives were taped to the walls of a dedicated project room. During brainstorming sessions, the designers wrote key words and phrases on color-coded neon Post-it notes with black Sharpie pens, a signature aesthetic component of the Ideo design process.
On the morning before it went to Knife & Tine, the team reviewed what it had heard from the subjects. The airline industry worker had told the Ideo team how much he hated being stuck on a bus. If a bus hit traffic within striking distance of his destination, he would often persuade the driver to open the door, and he would walk. It might take longer, but he hated feeling stuck.
“Waiting time is wasting life,” said Enrica Masi, an interaction designer.
Arianna McClain, a design researcher, riffed on this. “Most commutes take the same amount of time, but some people just want to be moving,” she said.
Finally, Mr. Roberts tried to sum it all up.
“There is a difference between the most direct journey, and the journey that meets my needs,” he said.
Over weeks of these sorts of conversations, the Ideo team developed a working theory that there were three archetypal commuters: Time Trumpers, for whom the only thing that mattered was the speed of the journey, regardless of comfort; Everyday Improvers, who looked for little ways to make a familiar commute more efficient or enjoyable; and Experience Seekers, adventurous spirits who might decide to try a new route and explore a new neighborhood, or walk if the weather was nice.
With these archetypes in mind, the Ideo team came up with a handful of conceptual services and presented them to the research subjects. What if a there were one pass that paid for all modes of transportation? What if trains and buses could text you when they were running late, and you could reply? What if an app gave you instant alternatives when your usual method of commuting was delayed?
The designs weren’t meant to represent actual products that Ford would develop. Rather, Ideo was looking for clues in the Chicagoans’ reactions that might inform more sketches, more concepts and perhaps, eventually, a prototype. “They’re intended to be almost sacrificial,” Mr. Roberts said of these early ideas.
By the end of October, it still wasn’t clear what Ideo would have to show for its months of intensive — and expensive — work. But some ideas were ruled out. It was clear that another route-planning app wouldn’t suffice. In fact, the answer might not be one product, but three different ones.
After they had snapped a few selfies under the warped mirror of Cloud Gate, it was time for the Ideo team to return to the office, about a mile and a half away. This time, the mandate was to do whatever was most enjoyable. The weather was still nice, so they decided to use Divvy, the bike-share service.
The user interface on the Divvy docking station was confusing and slow. For a quick one-way ride, the $10 fee felt steep, and the bikes were dirty and hard to maneuver. But riding across the bridges of downtown Chicago in the afternoon light was the most exhilarating part of the day.
The Ideo team’s trips that day seemed to confirm some of their hunches. The subway might have worked for Everyday Improvers, if only the trains had been on time. Uber was clearly best for Time Trumpers. Riding a bike was great for Experience Seekers.
In the months that followed, the firm developed three illustrative applications, one for each personality archetype. They weren’t functional, but they suggested what might be possible.
The app for Time Trumpers gave alternate routes if a user was stuck. A text-message-based app for Everyday Improvers informed users how the weather might affect their commute. And the Experience Seeker app allowed users to choose routes based on factors like “connect with nature,” “window shopping,” and “get your 10K steps.”
Some 800 test subjects around the world noodled with these ideas, playing with the dummy apps and providing Ideo with feedback. Like the earlier concepts, these were most likely “sacrificial.” But they were closer to something that Ford might one day bring to market.
In mid-January, Mr. Roberts and the team traveled to Dearborn, Mich., to present its findings at Ford headquarters. Both Ideo and its client were tight-lipped about what exactly happened during the workshop, but evidently the higher-ups at Ford were intrigued enough to push ahead: Ideo has developed more polished versions of some of its concepts, and is testing them with transportation authorities in London and Chicago. When functional versions are ready, the goal is to integrate them into FordPass.
Ford is working hard to avoid being undone by new technologies. Besides its existing experiments with ride sharing and FordPass, there are reports that Ford is working with Google on self-driving cars. Most other big carmakers are experimenting in similar ways.
Whatever Ideo cooks up for Ford will be a tiny part of the carmaker’s broader strategy. It almost certainly won’t generate the billions of dollars Ford will need to replace lost revenues whenever car sales do decline. But by trying to understand the hearts and minds of commuters who rely on buses, subways and their own feet, Ford hopes to at least be relevant in a more complex future, perhaps one with fewer cars.
“With the original Model T, we opened up the highways to all mankind,” Mr. Farrelly said. “We are at the same point again, about to reach a new audience. But we don’t claim to have all the answers yet.”