Lyft deal fills a blank in Ford's mobility plan

by admin October 2, 2017 at 8:12 am

DETROIT — In the not-too-distant past, Ford Motor Co. tying itself to a company part-owned by General Motors would have been analogous to treason in Detroit.

But petty rivalries and marketing wars over pickup beds are of little concern as executives focus on making the right multimillion-dollar bets to keep their companies relevant amid challenges from unfamiliar foes such as Google and even the vacuum-maker Dyson.

Ford’s decision last week to form a partnership with ride-hailing service Lyft Inc. helps fill in one of the big blanks left by former CEO Mark Fields, who put Ford on a path toward launching an autonomous vehicle in 2021 but gave skeptical investors few details about how it might do so.

It comes nearly two years after GM sank $500 million into Lyft to acquire a 9 percent stake. GM also is partnering with Lyft to explore deploying self-driving Chevrolet Bolts on Lyft’s platform.

A Ford insider said GM’s role was never a factor in the decision to work with Lyft. Official statements from all parties involved stress that each partnership is independent of any other.

Hackett: Signals Ford’s direction

The two companies have found a few opportunities to come together over the years, such as sharing development costs for complex transmissions, but Ford’s willingness under CEO Jim Hackett, who replaced Fields in May, to share data and collaborate with a company that already has deep ties to a competitor is the latest proof of a paradigm shift in the traditionally insular industry. Automakers must act swiftly to collaborate with established technology players or risk missing out on emerging revenue streams in a world of self-driving cars and shared vehicle ownership.

Ford’s move also highlights the growing influence of Lyft, originally a challenger to the more widely known Uber, in the automotive space.

“I think we’re in a period of great change in the industry where we’re seeing interesting bedfellows — and multiple bedfellows,” said Michelle Krebs, senior analyst with Autotrader. “Each automaker’s making a number of bets. Nobody knows what this picture of new mobility looks like.”

Ford’s position

The Lyft partnership is an early sign of Hackett’s impact on Ford. The partnership doesn’t necessarily signal a shift in Ford’s direction from its time​ under Fields but does offer much-needed clarity on how it will transition into being a mobility service provider. Hackett is expected to give more details of his plan when he meets with Wall Street analysts Tuesday, Oct. 3.

“We expect that our partnership with Lyft will accelerate our efforts to build a profitable and viable self-driving vehicle business,” Sherif Marakby, Ford’s vice president of autonomous vehicles and electrification — who did a brief stint working on autonomous vehicles for Uber — wrote in a blog post last week. “With Lyft’s network and respected brand experience, we expect our ability to scale self-driving vehicles will play a critical role in safely bringing this technology — and its many benefits — to mainstream consumers.”

Ford plans to use Lyft to deploy fleets of self-driving vehicles around 2021. Until then, the automaker will share technical information, customer-use data and traffic patterns to better understand when and where it needs to supply its vehicles. In the coming months, it potentially could deploy human-driven cars on Lyft’s network to test the infrastructure, a Ford spokesman said.

“I see Ford clearly positioning itself as the owner of autonomous vehicles and the manager of those fleets,” said Mike Ramsey, analyst with Gartner. “It’s a peek toward how Ford views itself in the future.”

New type of work

Ford’s collaboration with Lyft also underscores the automaker’s need to fill technology jobs so its own software engineers and other data technicians can work with Lyft to build out the infrastructure needed to deliver vehicles most efficiently.

Settles: New work to be done

Hackett’s addressing that, too. He recently met with UAW leadership to start laying out his plans. Vice President Jimmy Settles, head of the union’s Ford department, said the event focused on future job growth.

Settles said Ford is about 85 percent of the way to hitting its 2015 contract commitment to create or retain 8,500 union jobs by 2019 and could reach 100 percent by the end of this year.

“He wanted us to rest assured that technology is coming, but he’s not in the business of cutting jobs,” Settles told Automotive News. “There may be a new type of work that needs to be done.”

Settles said Ford is exploring how to tap into tech-related jobs and retraining opportunities for union workers. It’s building a $200 million advanced data center in Flat Rock, Mich., its second in the area.

Settles, who’s preparing to retire next June after age limits prevent him from seeking re-election as a UAW vice president, said he’s gotten used to collaborations between Detroit and Silicon Valley. The fact that Ford and GM are working with the same partner “is not weird anymore,” he said.

But the two companies remain intensely competitive when it comes to building and selling vehicles. GM’s statement responding to questions about Ford’s partnership with Lyft asserted that it was “on track to launch our self-driving technology first.”

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