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Why Ford's new retail space in New York won't sell you cars

As the automaker becomes a mobility company, it’s trying to understand the future of urban transportation

Inside the new FordHub in Lower Manhattan, the company’s new retail experience center, and a sign that it’s diving headfirst into the service business.

A recent discussion of urban mobility convened by Ford Motor Company was about as far away from the ground as one could get in New York: the event took place inside the 102-story observation deck of One World Trade Center. But the conversation was firmly grounded in the realities of moving through city streets—and how that’s all about to change.

At the company’s City of Tomorrow panel, held on January 31, the venerable automaker showed that it’s looking forward to new ways of helping customers move around the urban landscape, and clearly engaged in making a big technological leap. It even just opened a new retail experience, the FordHub, that’s all about transportation, not selling cars.

Unlike the beautiful panorama of New York City that served as a backdrop for the event, the roadmap for the future of transportation is anything but clear.

Ford’s City of Tomorrow campaign envisions the future of urban mobility

To Ford’s credit, nobody has that route figured out, and the company has reacted relatively swiftly to the new reality of urban mobility ushered in by new services such as Uber (or, as fast as a massive international firm whose core business model is threatened can be expected to act). The company has launched bike-share networks and a crowdsourced shuttle van transport system named Chariot. It has invested in autonomous vehicles, and even announced plans to eventually test electric taxis in New York and other big cities, part of an extensive $4.5 billion investment in electric vehicles.

According to John Kwant, the company’s Vice President for City Solutions, Ford wants to spark a conversation with the community and figure out how to operate in cities today. The automaker reached global dominance during a time when customer interaction was about sales and ownership, and needs to transition to a market based on service and sharing. This is clearly a change that Ford is trying to embrace. As Kwant’s boss, Ford CEO Mark Fields, would say that afternoon, the selling of cars and trucks is a $2.3 trillion global business. But add in transportation services, and it becomes a $5.4 trillion dollar opportunity.

“We know how to service cars, but we don’t yet know how to service the world,” Kwant said during an interview before the summit.

The entrance to the Ford Hub retail experience in the Oculus in Lower Manhattan

Ford’s great leap towards becoming a mobility company—which is on top of the goal to have an autonomous vehicle for sale by 2021—suggests the company seeks change, fast. But it’s also open to suggestions. Ford currently has no dealerships in Manhattan and many parts of the city, says Kwant, a symbol of the realities of selling cars in an expensive, public transit-friendly urban center, as well as the cultural gap automakers will have to overcome to design future mobility solutions that work for citydwellers.

In that spirit, the summit highlighted the new centerpiece of the company’s consumer research and outreach strategy, the new FordHub, a combination information center/brand awareness builder/conversation starter located in the Oculus transport center’s Westfield World Trade Center Mall. Kwant called it the company’s living room. Inside, an array of screens show incredibly useful mapping tools with detailed routing, itinerary, and transit information, while a colorful wall of more than 60 tiny toy cars include numerous Ford makes and models. Think of it as the next phase in physical outreach, but instead of a dealership and salespeople, there are “FordGuides” and transportation services. The company plans to open a similar space in San Francisco later this year.

A Ford Fusion hybrid autonomous test vehicle

Another change Ford has to grasp is technological. As Fields would also note, the company knows the eventual solution involves a lot of software. They already have a lot of experience; a F150 pickup contains 130 million lines of code. But they’re also willing to buy it, too. Last week Ford announced it would invest $1 billion in Argo AI, a company developing software for self-driving vehicles, becoming a majority shareholder and staking a claim to talent and tech it likely couldn’t quickly create in-house.

A final key part of Ford’s future is understanding its audience. Ford is beginning to figure that out with public outreach plans, and a whole lot of brainstorming sessions. The company has held a series of outreach events, including open forums in San Francisco transit stations and meetings in Detroit neighborhoods to learn more about daily transit issues, part of the Go Detroit initiative to find better ways to connect disparate communities. Kwant knows the company needs to help facilitate better movement and flow of people, not merely cars, and doesn’t have all the answers.

The toy car display at the FordHub

Kwant and his colleagues have a long and winding road ahead, but at least the company seems aware of the challenges. He said discussions around innovation often come back to the idea of red ocean and blue ocean. A red ocean represents doing what the competitors are doing; there’s “a lot of chum in the water,” and the waters become competitive and choppy. Better to aim for the blue ocean solution—he brings up Ford’s Chariot concept as an example—try to do something different, and come out ahead.

As moderator Janette Sadik-Khan, former commissioner of New York City’s Department of Transportation, suggested during the panel, the path to reach Ford’s vision for an autonomous, shared, tech-focused transportation system, is still being sorted out.

“Data is the new asphalt, concrete and steel of the 21st century,” she said, “but we still have the asphalt, concrete, and steel of today.”