By Dan Sturges
Last week, Ford announced it would shut down Th!nk, it's community-friendly vehicle division. Ford spokesman Tim Holmes said "we don't believe that (small electric vehicles) are the future of environmental transport for the mass market". That's too bad, because many do. It just seems Ford wasn't able to make Th!nk a success.
I give Ford credit for trying to make Th!nk work. Th!nk's mini vehicles are a major departure from building gas burning automobiles. (One analogy of Ford building mini EVs might be to imagine Boeing trying to build ultralight aircraft!).
The venture initially aimed at being a laboratory for Ford to rethink how vehicles are designed, made, and sold. An indication of this came at the company's launch in Detroit in 2000, a UPS truck delivered a new Th!nk on stage to a "customer" to demonstrate their intent to sell small EVs over the Internet. To succeed with Th!nk, Ford needed to change its mindset, and foster a new mobility culture. This was to be a tough job; selling the American public vehicles that offered more by being less.
Th!nk's portfolio included a city EV, a neighborhood EV (NEV), and an electric bike. None of these vehicles were multi-purpose vehicles like the millions of cars and light duty trucks that Ford sells around our planet each year.
The Th!nk vehicles were mission specific vehicles, and served as supplemental transportation in many cases. They were designed for local trips, for trips around the neighborhood, or around one's city. They were not for the freeway. As a result, Th!nk required a new sales approach; one loaded with education.
The benefit of small Th!nk vehicles went further than just addressing air quality issues. Clean cars don't diminish the traffic jams that millions of Americans struggle with each day. As small inexpensive personal vehicles, Th!nks offered to clean the air, significantly reduce our energy needs (they weigh much less than conventional cars), enhance transit as a link for reaching one's final destination in a suburban setting, create more parking without more concrete, save people money, and make a community more convivial. These small vehicles were powered by a much larger idea.
Trying to Kill a Better Scooter
Perhaps the vehicle of greatest controversy, the NEV, offered the most potential for making nicer communities. Some in Detroit think the NEV is too much like a golf cart, and should not be allowed on the road.
Automotive News (the lead industry news source) recently had an editorial with this sentiment; "A Label Cannot Make a Golf Cart a Road Vehicle". It's amazing that these automaker-insiders never consider people driving Vespa or Yamaha scooters on America's streets which have much less substance than a golf cart or NEV! The NEV is safer than the Vespa, offers to keep the rain and cold air off the operator, is statically stable, offers body protection, carries cargo (i.e. groceries), and is much easier to be seen in by other drivers than the skinny little Italian two-wheelers. GM has tried to stop the NEV, but for a vehicle that only travels at 1/2 the speed of the Vespa, why?
Do these folks not want to reduce our foreign oil intake? Isn't choice good for America. If a scooter driver wants a safer vehicle, why keep it from him or her? If scooters are unsafe, why not have a campaign to get them off the roads of college towns and other environments home to large scooter populations?
With over 90% of Americans using a car or light truck for most trips, it's easy to see that alternatives to the car in America have been unpopular. In the past, the choice of alternatives have been walking, biking, or riding the bus, and all of these modes have been inconvenient compared to the car. With the Internet, some Americans are now able to access work (and even shopping) without leaving their homes, and without starting a car. (If an innovator like Henry Ford was around today, he would have been blown away by the web, and it's potential to rethink human movement on the planet).
Th!nk was to offer EVs for a new path. They were to offer less impacting personal motorized mobility for people that have been accustomed to their cars. They could offer an opportunity for people to transition to a new multi-modal approach of moving about their community that offers everyone the promise of a better world to live in. The idea was to make it a smaller step for people to get out of their car for some trips.
Finding the Right Mind
So launching Th!nk was to be a challenge. I immediately became curious on what type of person Ford top brass would select to run their Th!nk Mobility program (the vehicle group in Th!nk). My first thoughts imagined the company recruiting a leader from Nokia, or a leader from another communications company that would understand how the Internet was creating new lifestyles and new travel patterns in the U.S..
Then I thought, no... the need for education and changing behavior would be vital; Ford would be bold and try to recruit a leader from the weight loss industry, or some other field like it that addressed changing people's behavior. I thought these folks knew how to get people to live different, and should be considered. And then I learned that the head would be Rob Stevens.
On September 18, 2000 an article appeared in the Detroit paper. Here's how it began:
What a change for Ford Motor Co.'s Rob Stevens. The former engineer for Ford gas guzzlers such as the Explorer and Expedition sport-utilities - "I set up the program to put the V-8 in Explorer," he says - is now in charge of a new line of Ford electrically powered vehicles.
So with the threat of global warming, air in our cities residents can't breathe, traffic jammed on a national freeway system past its prime, parking stresses compounding, and costs rising for everybody, Ford found it's man to lead them into this future. Don't get me wrong, Rob Stevens is a very nice, very good person. But he never should have been Th!nk's driver.
Yes, the main challenge for Th!nk would be safety. As small vehicles, the consumer would want to know how to be safe driving on streets filled with large SUVs. (This is a main reason the vehicles are a hard sell and really required a new culture to support their sales). Ultimately, there is a need to create safer community street networks for community vehicles. Applying speed sensors on neighborhood streets (using information technology rather than steel) is an approach to address safety without adding weight (which requires more energy) which is being considered. But make no mistake, millions of Americans live in perfectly safe traffic environments for small EVs today, but were not presented a compelling offering by Ford.
Fast forward to the summer of 2002. Th!nks are sold at Ford dealers who miss the vision, and frankly aren't very interested in finding it. Th!nk did not rethink the sales process, and developed into an uninspired company under Mr. Stevens control. (The dealers could have been a real asset had they been approached in a different, more relevant manner).
Ford Design Lets the Baby Drown
I personally had always thought of Th!nk as a new kind of "design company". Ford would promote how the vehicles could make one's community nicer to potential buyers. The vehicles could then be considered in effect "design tools" to create better communities to live in. This made sense to me. Henry Ford had introduced the Model T, which (together with the cars that followed) allowed Americans to drive further out from town and begin creating the suburbs.
This made the car an inadvertent design tool, as it was allowing Americans behind the wheel to reshape their own civilization. I had hoped Ford Design would recognize this about Th!nk and throw in a helping hand. It didn't.
Ford's V.P. of design is J Mays. He's a highly capable guy with very good design taste. His mission since arriving was to bring coherent, good looking products to all of Ford's line-ups. But J is more styling focused. I'm not aware of a car from Audi or Ford (where he has been in charge) that he worked on, that brought any new vehicle architecture forward. He's not the guy you would look to for creating an all-new vehicle category (like Chrysler did with the Minivan).
J was 50% responsible for creating the New Beetle. But while the Beetle is a masterpiece of styling, it doesn't bring any new vehicle packaging innovations forward.
J is basically a "tailor", and it's true Ford has really needed his talents. And while he promotes mixing diverse talents to create great design, unfortunately J stays close to shore with this thinking. He doesn't think how transportation, communication, and the urban form have profound new opportunities to melt together to create all new ways of happier and healthier living in America and on this large ball in space.
There was one designer assigned to Th!nk, and he did understand the larger opportunity of how the vehicles would improve our cities, and he also understood the opportunities to leverage digital technologies to rethink the Th!nk product development process. Unfortunately, he had no where to go in Stevens' (and Mays) organization with this thinking.
Ironically, Ford had realized they needed to apply more systems thinking to get the most out of Th!nk. I learned of their plans to create a special group inside Th!nk to work with communities and cities to design integrated mobility systems. It was a great idea, but unfortunately, they said they couldn't find the people to run such an effort. They were after all, an "automobile company" I was told.
Bill Ford Jr. is now CEO at Ford and the man responsible for closing Th!nk. I'm sure his Ford family, and top associates all say he needs to return to profitability in order to best address the car's environmental future. It's somewhat sad though, because he is trying to become strong by returning to the old business model that created so much strain. I'm not buying any stock.
Slow to Speed
I'm writing this from my new post in Boulder Colorado. Walking to the closest community commercial center near me takes me 18 minutes. Driving my NEV takes me just 3 minutes. (A car actually makes the trip longer as it takes more time to get in and out of a car than my NEV). Soon Ford will begin producing it's latest project, the 500 horsepower GT40 retro race car. Make no mistake about it, the GT40 is an amazing vehicle. In a way, I'm glad they are doing it to entertain themselves. But for those into reality on a stressed out planet, I'm trolling through Boulder with just 5 horsepower, dripping in the future of planet life, and just loving it.
Several months ago I visited Disney's designer town, Celebration, to check out the 150 NEVs roaming about the town on a daily basis. I met Dr. Susan Brasfield, the Principal of the Celebration School, and heard her powerful story. She moved to Celebration (a New Urbanism community that supports compact mixed-use community design to reduce the need for cars). She came from Atlanta, and said she put between 25,000 and 30,000 miles on her car each year. Now living and working in Celebration, she has only put on 8,000 miles on her car last year, and the rest were what she called "NEV MILES!" Now can you imagine if her story became common? Then we would be getting somewhere.
She's ready for the next phase now; she will join Celebration's Mobility Center, which will allow her to rent a car by the hour for trips out of Celebration simply with a smart card. She will have the choice on small cars, luxury cars, SUVs, and pick-up trucks, depending on the trip she will be taking.
Recently Playa Vista, a new community in LA, choose a mobility team led by DaimlerChrysler to develop a comprehensive transportation system for their community using NEVs and City EVs. The Daimler team beat out Ford for the job. There is an exciting future for small vehicles integrated into big new mobility systems. It seems the winners in the next 10 years will be those that can think larger than cars; and focus on transportation or mobility.
Stuck in Gear
It's funny, I've seen Bill Ford Jr. at Starbucks four times now. There he was, waiting in line for a latte like so many others. He is a regular guy, and he seems good intentioned. (It was amazing that this guy in line was boss to 400,000 people!) But this hopeful sustainable mobility captain seems captive to his own rusty gang of automobile pirates manning every mast and every post on his ship.
Too bad Ford. Too bad it didn't work. But please, keep the comments about the technology being the problem to yourself. Our country deserves better. You really didn't try.
Ford's New No-Compromise World
Th!nks final press statement continued; "we will instead focus on developing fuel cell and hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles to meet environmental regulations for cars and trucks". Ford vice president of product development Richard Parry-Jones went on to say "The next generation of alternative fuel vehicles will deliver customers a no-compromise experience, such as the Hybrid Escape, which will be launched in 2003". So forget taking on traffic jams, helping transit become more effective, and focusing on low-cost mobility. So I guess when I'm on LA's 405, or the Bay Area's 101 "freeways" next year in Fords Hybrid baby-SUV travelling at 4 miles per hour, I can consider it a "no-compromise" experience. Ford never got it; the system needs to be changed; it will be changed (it has to be changed). Ford has gotten off the path forward too early. I don't expect as many good things for them.
Follow the Money
Across Motown, Don Runkle senior vice president of Delphi Automotive (formerly the GM parts company) is looking at Dean Kamen's new neighborhood electric vehicle (the Segway). Mr. Runkle opens his mouth and says; " I believe in economic gravity, the consumer will find the low-cost solution". Ultimately, it may not be the "eco" in ecology that drives this new mobility future, but rather the "eco" in economics. The power of the Internet changes more than most realize. We can expect a great mobility future with amazing levels of diversity of vehicle type and services. Last week we found out who won't be out in front.
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