June 29, 2015
Alisa Priddle

Henry Ford put the world on wheels. A century later, the company he founded is preparing for a world where congestion demands other alternatives, including bikes, apps, public transportation and car sharing.

"It can make a material difference in people's lives by offering more choices and affordable and accessible mobility even if it is not a car," said Ken Washington, Ford's new head of research and advanced engineering.

Much of the work is happening at the new Ford Research and Innovation Center that opened in Palo Alto in January and already employs about 50 people tackling projects involving autonomous vehicles, connectivity and the use of big data.

When Ford opened its new facility in Silicon Valley, it also announced 25 global mobility experiments.

In San Francisco last week, CEO Mark Fields said about 16 projects have concluded. Some completed their mission, some shifted their focus; some have become pilot programs or progressed to the advanced engineering phase.

Here are some projects still in the works, ranging from smartwatch apps to ebikes and car sharing:

Infocycle data gathering

Sensors attached to 12 bikes in Palo Alto and Dearborn gathered data on cycling patterns and conditions, creating a unique map of the city for cyclists, showing routes popular for offering shade or to be avoided due to potholes and poor lighting.

Principal researcher Sudipto Aich is working on smaller, lighter sensor kits to put on 1,000 bikes by year end.

"Bikes are a great way to probe the city," Aich said. "Bike companies are unlikely to do this research."

Electric-assist bikes

From a company-wide contest came a trio of electric-assist bikes: the MoDe:Me personal commuter; MoDe:Flex enthusiast bike and the MoDe:Pro for commercial use like food delivery.

The motorized bikes fold and fit into Ford vehicles. The electric assist ensures you don't get too sweaty on the trip, can handle hills and safety cross busy intersections or roundabouts, said Tom Thompson, a powertrain engineer in the U.K. and one of the inventors.

They all use an app that integrates driving, parking, public transportation and cycling into a seamless route. As a safety feature, the bike cannot operate without the owner's smartphone.

The app stands alone even if Ford does not decide to build and sell bikes, said Frank MacKenzie, an intellectual property lawyer for Ford. It could be the reason a cyclist buys a Ford.

Detroit Free Press