Forget the Prius Effect- Here Comes The Matrix Effect

Photo Courtesy of Zengardner.com
Photo Courtesy of Zengardner.com

Remember that moment in The Matrix when they showed us we’re all just batteries for The Machines? And that the reality we think we know is just something being fed to us by the machines, to keep us complacent? Well, automakers are working on technology to help bring this to fruition.

I was invited, at Ford’s expense, to attend their “Further With Ford” conference. We were treated to a delightful first-class event. However, let me preface this article with a caveat. I have always hated cars. My most recurring nightmare as a child was being chased by cars. My primary form of transportation is my electric motorcycle, because I value Freedom. The car comes in a distant 4th after bikes and walking, mainly reserved for road trips to the racetrack. If it weren’t for the money it makes on Relay Rides and Zimride, I’d probably sell it.

 

Ford's 1925 ad, when a car brought freedom.
Ford’s 1925 ad, when a car brought freedom.

How Can Ford Make Your Life Better?

Coaxing people out of their cages is a thing I do. However, cage makers, excuse me, automakers, want to make you feel like you’re connected to the virtual outside world, while ignoring the real world around you, to make the driving experience more tolerable. Yet in the book Ford gave us, the research clearly shows that people are tired of sitting alone in their cages.

At our opening dinner, Ford CEO Alan Mulally unveiled this ad from 1925 and explained that Ford wanted to return to their core mission, to make people’s lives better. By embracing battery electric drivetrains, they could make a lot of people’s lives better. They have a good plan, and an award-winning fuel-efficient lineup but is it enough? Tesla, Toyota, Nissan and now Fiat have proven that electrics can sell if you offer people the car they want.

Adding more software, more driver aids and more tools for connectivity was a big topic. Steve Wozniak was even a panelist on “Disrupting the Drive”.  While I like the idea of cars not hitting me when their drivers aren’t paying attention, that’s as far as I want it to go. I don’t like the idea of a completely connected, automated city, it doesn’t seem to welcome the unconnected- the pedestrians, cyclists, vintage renegades.

Relevant trends they mentioned included “The Rise of the Intima-City”- people of all ages choosing to live in walkable cities. “Defying Distraction”- technologies to help cars drive themselves so you don’t have to. And “Return to Your Senses“- the ultimate nanny car protects you from yourself by discerning a sleepy driver through their grip on the wheel, as well as other tools.

Driving. Meh.

Throughout the study conducted by Ford and BAV Consulting I saw strong indicators that as population swells and with it traffic jams, people are tired of sitting in cars. Sure, sometimes it’s necessary. But plenty of times there are alternatives. Cities like Portland and Minneapolis weren’t born great cycling cities, they became thus after a lot of activism. Los Angeles has been working toward her destiny of becoming a cycling city since 2006. With each CicLAvia (including the one I did the day before this conference) and every new bike lane, or commuter tool like Bike Trains, she gets closer to forgetting her past as “Autopia”.

Be Here Now

While some people enjoy as much distraction as they can get away with via smart phones and soon Google glass, others are moving to more walkable neighborhoods and leaving the cage at home. In the panel “Returning to Your Senses”, Expert on our relationship with technology, Sherry Turkle, explained that companies need to ask “What do people want?” not “What do machines want?” which leads to a focus on just selling more. That doesn’t always make people’s lives better, except, of course, the shareholders.

2013 Ford F150 Limited. Coming soon to a 90's hip-hop video near you.
2013 Ford F150 Limited. Coming soon to a 90’s hip-hop video near you. Just try fitting a built-in toolbox and a day’s work in that bed. I dare you.

Selling More To People With Less

We had an awesome experience driving this Limited F150 to a Habitat for Humanity site. However, I got a whopping 14mpg from that EcoBoost engine, on a trip that was at least 60% freeway. It’s great that Ford is offering a broad range of fuel-efficient cars, but they’ve clearly got some work to do with trucks. The Atlas concept claims ~3mpg improvement based on aerodynamics. My 2004 Toyota 4Runner seems to show as much improvement when I drop my average freeway speed from 85mph to 75 (while someone else is driving, of course).

In the new economy, automakers need to shift their focus from selling more cars to finding other ways to maximize shareholder value. However, with Tesla outselling all other luxury sedans, and cheaper cars slated to be released in coming years, this could spell the death of any automaker who thinks they can stay alive on brute horsepower. Their dealers can protest all they want, but this is the future. It’s already happened in other retail outlets. Did Best Buy protest when Apple opened their own stores? Does Macy’s protest The Gap, J Crew, and all the other brands with vertical sales structures that cut out the middle man? No.

Partnering with a car share company like Zipcar is good, but sponsoring bike share programs would be a great way to help Ford customers improve their health, save money, and connect with the world around them instead of being isolated in their cage all the time. The benefits of cycling continue with improved air quality and reduced traffic congestion. Bike share programs get a mention in #8 on the list of trends- the rise of the Intima-City.

Yet “Blueprint for Mobility”, Ford’s work in creating an interconnected transportation network, is part of Trend 11- Return to your Senses. As a cyclist, this confuses me. There’s no better way to engage the senses than cycling through a city. But Ford doesn’t build bicycles. So by partnering with telecom companies, they’re hoping connected cars can re-route each other and improve traffic. I might be able to tolerate this, as long as they stay off my bike routes!

 

Susanna Schick

Susanna is passionate about anything fast and electric. As long as it's only got two wheels. She covers electric motorcycle racing events, test rides electric motorcycles, and interviews industry leaders. Occasionally she deigns to cover automobile events in Los Angeles for us as well. However, she dreams of a day when Los Angeles' streets resemble the two-wheeled paradise she discovered living in Barcelona and will not rest until she's converted the masses to two-wheeled bliss.