Disruption is the mantra of the day in American business, with entrepreneurs scrambling to reinvent the way people do everything from buying ice cream cones to paying their bills. One of the old-school giants feeling uncomfortably disrupted by all this innovation is the Ford Motor Company. More than a century after Ford itself fatally disrupted the horse carriage industry, the people at the prototypical 20th-century manufacturing company are confronting a proliferation of 21st-century alternatives to the old paradigm of one person, one car, in which simply pushing new models off assembly lines each year won’t cut it.
One of the ways Ford is dealing with this is by revisiting a strangely persistent 19th-century technology. Ford is looking at bicycles.
The company isn’t just interested in how bicycles might be improved for the modern age—although Ford has, indeed, unveiled prototypes of electric bikes both for commuters and professional riders such as couriers. (The company also rolled out an e-bike way back in 2001, the Think, that failed in short order.) Ford is also looking at bikes as a kind of urban sensory organ, a vehicle that moves around the city in a unique way, offering opportunities to collect data and improve the understanding of how urban streets work for cars and bikes alike.
“Given how important bicycles are in the space of urban mobility, we needed a mechanism to understand better how they move in the urban environment,” says Sudipto Aich, a principal research engineer with Ford’s Research and Innovation Center in Palo Alto, California. That mechanism is being developed by Ford engineers as part of an experiment they’re calling the Info Cycle project.
Here’s how it’s worked so far: Ford engineers at the Palo Alto mobility innovation center developed a sensor kit that mounts on the front fork of a bicycle. Made of off-the-shelf electronics and running on Ford’s open-source OpenXC platform, the sensor is capable of recording a variety of data, including location, pedal speed, ambient light, temperature, altitude, and speed. The data is then available for analysis.
So far the sensors have been installed on a limited number of bikes, but the experiment will be scaling up. The goal, says Aich, is to better understand how bicycles move in the “urban ecosystem.”
That information could have a variety of practical applications. Cities could use it to aid in street design. Bike advocacy groups could use it to make the case for bike lanes. And Ford could use it, along with OpenXC data gathered from its cars, to track the changing way people are moving around cities. “Bicycles are one of the premier components in any city, and it’s a growing trend,” says Aich. “The idea is to address that trend and to collect the data.”
The next phase of the experiment will be to figure out how to incorporate the sensor into the bike more seamlessly. Aich says one of the first things the engineers learned in the first phase is that people don’t want to add weight to their bikes simply to collect data “for the common good.” So engineers are looking for ways to build the sensor into a component that’s already on the bike: perhaps the lights, the bell, or the handlebars. Once they decide on a design prototype, they will produce a limited run of maybe 1,000 devices and hand them out to a select group of cyclists in a well defined geographic areas.
“The reason that we are making it is to show and demonstrate a point,” says Aich. “We are not in the business of selling a bike accessory. Our positioning is going to be mostly to help us solve some of these urban challenges we have around bicycling,”
Those challenges include, he says, the age-old conflict between bikes and cars. “Ask anyone who rides in the city the top thing they are mindful of, it’s a car,” says Aich, who himself commutes to work by bike sometimes but also drives. “That in itself is potentially a huge opportunity. Now, bike companies aren’t thinking about cars, and car companies aren’t thinking about bikes.”
Aich is reluctant to predict what form the Info Cycle project will ultimately take, although he hopes it attracts a community of active users as it rolls out over the next few years. He emphasizes that the open-source nature of the platform means it will be easily adaptable to local concerns and conditions—whatever those may turn out to be. It’s quite a departure for a company that made its name rolling out uniform products and creating a market for them.
“There’s the ability for the community to choose what problems they want to solve,” Aich says. “I think there’s going to be a lot of learning new things that we have never thought about.”