If you visited CES this year, you’ll know that the only thing more impressive than the number of VR headsets on display was the complete breakdown of systems around Las Vegas due to the show. While adding 170,000 visitors to any city for a four-day event will inevitably put a strain on services and transportation, it’s still surprising when a city quite literally built out of nothing for the purpose of tourism falls so spectacularly to pieces when presented with the task. Add the first rain in six months to the mix and you’d be excused for thinking that the end really is nigh—just like the guy with the sign outside the Flamingo is constantly shouting about.
But in the gold-plated ballrooms of the hotels, at nearly every press conference, there was talk of a technological utopia right around the corner. Nvidia can now pack the power of a supercomputer in a desktop-sized rack unit allowing full autonomous driving any day now. Toyota’s e-Palette self-driving pods will easily transform from ride-sharing minibus to mobile farmer’s market in minutes. Tier-one automotive suppliers all stand on the cusp of turning the mess of an automotive interior you currently have, with conflicting standards and poor usability, into a shared spa getaway with three random strangers—just as soon as the OEM’s get onboard. But it was Ford CEO Jim Hackett’s vision to fix the entire world through connectivity that really stood out.
Ford’s Transportation Mobility Cloud aims to be a standard that connects every phone, bike, car, bus, and building in an urban environment together seamlessly (CV2X or “Connected Vehicle to Everything”) to create cities free of traffic, where people suddenly now prefer to walk through tree-lined streets to shop at small local boutiques rather than drive to the nationwide chains and strip malls that currently dominate the American reality. But after spending three weeks in the American southwest (mixing business and pleasure), it seems obvious that connected cars are not going to transform the sprawling multi-lane modern US megacity into, well, Europe, anytime soon. Only a strong backlash on the part of residents, huge infrastructural changes, and massive investment will—and none of those things sit on the horizon.
My adopted hometown of Leiden, Netherlands looks and feel quite a bit like Ford’s utopian dream, but it’s a city that was built over the better part of 1000 years on a very human scale. In the 1970s, along with most Dutch cities, the citizens rebelled against the encroachment of cars and put a people-first plan into action. Cars have limited access in the city center, public transport is easily accessible, and most people get around on bikes because dedicated cycle lanes make it the most efficient and safest way to get around, even if you often arrive at your destination wet. Las Vegas, LA, and even Dearborn will need to overcome (and re-engineer) generations of automotive-oriented urban planning before they can get to the point where “smart” cars solve what ails them, let alone eastern megacities like Shanghai, Seoul, or Mumbai.
But Ford is not just a urban-renewal think tank—it’s also a publicly-traded car manufacturer with shareholders who demand profits—and at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit we saw them take the wraps off the antithesis of everything Jim Hackett spoke about at CES, a new truck and a muscle car. The 2019 Ford Ranger is the successor to the much-loved compact truck that was sold in the US from 1983-2011. Its (slightly) more compact size than the F-150 has meant that it has continued to be Ford’s primary pickup option for the entire rest of the world, even during its absence from the North American market, but in the face of increasing competition from Toyota as well as GM, it’s back. The Mustang Bullitt is a nostalgia-first special edition of Ford’s venerable muscle car, created to mark the 50th anniversary of a mediocre Steve McQueen thriller with one of the most memorable chase scenes ever filmed. There were no concepts on show. There was nothing forward-looking to be seen beyond the powerpoint presentation. Just two very American “here and now” production cars and talk of a yet-to-be unveiled connected car API.
Bill Ford and Jim Hackett will tell you that there’s no problem with this dichotomy, talking up future transportation solutions and urban planning while continuing to show products that fall firmly on the old-school end of the automotive spectrum. I understand their unwillingness to burn down the status quo in order to build the future, but I also think they’re missing some of the most basic opportunities to show real mobility leadership. CES and NAIAS are both transportation nightmares. What Ford could be doing is discussing with organizers of these shows how they can help design and engineer a better mobility system for 2019. While Lyft and Aptiv highlighted their technology with autonomous BMW ride-alongs around Las Vegas, they also showed that their vision for the future is real and tangible. They captured the imagination—and headlines—of CES, while also building trust and a reputation with the public. Ford’s ongoing talk-but-don’t-make strategy is starting to become a headline of its own.