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How Ford plans to sell cars when nobody wants to own one

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist

Why buy if you can rent?

That’s the central premise of the so-called sharing economy, in which firms such as Zipcar, Uber, Airbnb and Rent the Runway offer cheaper alternatives to once traditional—and sizeable—financial commitments. While they save consumers money and represent a vibrant new part of the economy, however, as-needed products and services have become a major threat to some established and even dominant consumer brands.

Ford (F), like other automakers, worries about the sharing economy and the reluctance of younger consumers to commit to big purchases like a car. “They’re becoming increasingly commitment-averse,” Sheryl Connelly, Ford’s futurist, tells me in the video above. “The future of the automobile will be tied to new models of ownership.”

That augurs an intensifying battle to get consumers’ attention and find new ways to profit from them without a direct sale. Ford has started by partnering with Zipcar, which promotes the affordability of renting cars only when you need them, compared with the cost of outright ownership. And Zipcar offers trendy models from the likes of Audi, BMW, Mazda and Volkswagen rather than the duds found in most rental fleets. Zipcar’s offerings include the Ford Focus and Escape SUV, giving Ford exposure among trendsetting urbanites who favor an occasional ride over owning.

But Ford must also find new ways to interest urbanites in car ownership, especially now that city living is popular again and many burgs are rapidly gaining population. Might it subsidize parking to alleviate a big part of the monthly cost of owning a car? Could Ford run its own vehicle-sharing fleets in big cities? Could automakers offer a form of time-sharing, with several people each owning a portion of a car?

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Connelly won’t give away any specific plans, except to point out that Executive Chairman Bill Ford has frequently addressed the future of transportation and the coming problems -- such as widespread urban gridlock -- automakers must solve.

Parking in cities is a traditional hassle that future technology might address. Connelly points out that driving around looking for a parking space is the most wasteful time most people spend inside a car. If self-driving cars materialize the way technologists anticipate, the hunt for a space could become a thing of the past. “Wouldn’t it be great if your car could drop you off and then go park itself,” Connelly says. And parallel parking might become a distant memory that today's drivers will someday brag to their grandkids about.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.

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