Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
The company has a slew of next-generation ideas, from a self-parking car to a Roomba-like Segway for the last mile.
This week Ford Motor Company unveiled a handful of technological ideas, like driver-assist features that use radar and sensors to give your car an extra pair of eyes on the road. One feature alerts you before you drive in the wrong direction. Another helps you steer away from an obstacle in situations where it’s too late to apply the brakes. In the time that it takes for the driver to fully recognize that he or she is about to crash, the car is programmed to swerve into safety. Perhaps more exciting is that these features could come as early as the next two years.
Then there’s the sneak peek of finalists from the company’s internal Last Mile Mobility Challenge, which asks employees to dream up ways to get drivers from the car to their final destination. The ideas revealed so far include a self-loading wheelchair for drivers with physical disabilities, a folding electric tricycle that doubles as a shopping cart, and intriguingly, a Segway-hoverboard hybrid that looks somewhat like an oversized Roomba, as TechCrunch keenly observes.
These innovations come at a time when self-driving cars have yet to hit the road en masse, though the driver-assist technology seems subtly to be preparing us to get comfortable with the idea of yielding (almost) full control of the wheel to our vehicles. One feature the company is touting, for example, will park the car for you at the press of a button — “like magic,” says a test driver in Ford’s promotional video. She sits back in her seat and watches as the car reverses itself into a spot along the curb, the steering wheel spinning all on its own.
Despite the growing number of cities dreaming of a car-free future, or at least a multimodal one, Ford’s latest ideas bet on Americans holding onto their love of cars and their tendency to commute alone. Unless the trunk of a Ford Focus can fit five of those Carr-E’s, as the circular transport devices are called, it’s an idea meant for the driver, and the driver alone. After all, as Richard Florida reported last year, the Census Bureau finds that 86 percent of U.S. workers still commute by car and more than 75 percent do so alone.
At the same time, though, Americans don’t experience the same enthusiasm and excitement as they once did for buying cars, a trend the Washington Post recently described as “America’s once magical—now mundane—love affair with cars.” That’s true at least among the younger crowd, according to a handful of studies out there.
For city dwellers in general, the Post writes, owning a car is a hassle, especially when it comes to parking and traffic. And perhaps, that’s one of the problems that car companies are trying to tackle, in particular with Ford’s parking assistant feature and its Last Mile Mobility challenge. (Ford has not responded to a request for comment.)
Ford is no stranger to how the world is rethinking commuting. For one thing, the company recently invested in mass- and microtransit, partnering with the ridehailing company Bridj to bring on-demand public transit to Kansas City, Missouri. But Ford is, after all, a car company and it’s in their interest to keep the thrill of automobiles—autonomous or otherwise—alive. If you remember, the company was recently awarded a patent for rear wheel that doubles a “self-propelled unicycle,” for when drivers want to ditch their cars in dense cities for the last mile and, as my colleague Adam Sneed writes, try feeling like Batman.