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How a 114-year-old automaker is taking cars off the road

Melody Hahm
Senior Writer

A 114-year-old automaker isn’t the first company that comes to mind when you think of the latest and greatest innovations from Silicon Valley.

But Ford (F) has made great strides when it comes to innovation behind the wheel, with its acquisition of smart shuttle service Chariot and its testing of large-scale 3D printing (the first automaker to do so). In perhaps its most ambitious plan, Ford plans to put an autonomous vehicle for ride-sharing on the road by 2021.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is disrupt ourselves. Change to most companies comes slowly. We’re trying to blow it wide open, and to say not only are we going to be part of this change but anticipate this change,” Ford executive chairman Bill Ford told Yahoo Finance at South by Southwest this week.

But all of these developments revolve around those living in urban areas, continuing to bestow new technologies on a population already benefitting from them.

Ford acknowledged its innovation in may not trickle to areas outside cities, at least for the foreseeable future, and wouldn’t enhance the lives of all consumers.

“Initially it’ll be in the cities. If you live in an urban area around the world, your life will become a lot easier with autonomous vehicles. [The change] will come much slower to suburban and rural areas where traditional ownership and traditional vehicles will play a large part for a longer period of time,” Ford said.

Ford said this will inevitably lead to a tale of two populations — as its focus on research and development will only benefit city dwellers, and those living in the outskirts won’t be directly affected by exciting new initiatives just yet.

“You’re going to have a bifurcation — with urban transportation and then the rest of transportation. There are a lot of big [societal] issues to work out — the ethics of autonomy, if there’s a setback early will that set back the adoption of autonomy?”

How Chariot fits into Ford’s larger plan

Chariot, a Silicon Valley-based shuttle company that Ford acquired in the fall, exemplifies how Ford is tackling mobility, particularly for commuters. Similar to Google’s Mountain View community shuttle, Chariot lets customers commute cheaply. The service currently operates in Austin and San Francisco, and is expanding into six new cities this year. Dozens of employees of Austin-based Whole Foods (WFM) ride Chariot to work. These startups fill the void that was created when Uber and Lyft left Austin last spring.

Ford said services like Chariot help congested cities and commuters, particularly during rush hour.

“Unlike [taxis, Ubers or Lyfts] — which typically put one or two people in — Chariots are actually adding more vehicles to the city in an already crowded city. Chariot will take vehicles off the road,” said Ford.

Ford isn’t the only company investing in group commuting. Via, which operates in New York City, Washington D.C., and Chicago, is a service like Chariot, that people use to commute more cheaply, but not necessarily more efficiently.

Ford envisions a day when public transportation and shuttle services could form a seamless network for the urban commuter.

“What you can envision is a train arriving with commuters and a Chariot will know that because it will be on the same network and a Chariot will be there waiting and it’ll pick up the 12 passengers that all want to go to a certain location. And so in many ways it will be augmenting public transportation.”

Ultimately, Ford sees the day that its Chariots will be fully autonomous, and that’s great news for consumers — if you’re lucky enough to live in a metropolis.

Melody Hahm is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering entrepreneurship, technology and real estate. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm.

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