Ford is known for making cars, yet it recently unveiled two designs for smart electric bikes at a mobile phone show in Barcelona. No word yet if they are actually going into production. (The designs were the winners of an internal Ford design competition and are not without issues.)

The smaller MoDe:Me bike was built with the help of Dahon, an experienced folding bike manufacturer, and it has all kinds of smart bells and whistles including "a rear-facing ultrasonic sensor." This sensor enables a rider alert system that vibrates both handlebars when the cyclist is being overtaken by a vehicle; the system also alerts motorists of the e-bike's presence by illuminating handlebar lights. One might point out that in any city with a decent population of bikes and a proper separated bike infrastructure, these kinds of alert systems will either be going off constantly or not at all, like that silly helmet from Volvo.

In fact the importance of this initiative is not the bike at all — it's the recognition by a car company that the world is changing and that companies must adapt. Our cities are too crowded; cities are instituting controls to limit the number of cars or charging congestion fees; parking is getting unaffordable. There's a turf war going on in the streets between pedestrians, cyclists, transit vehicles and cars. 

On the other hand, the majority of Americans live in suburbs where transit or cycling to work is not an option. Everything is just too far apart. 

get a handle

What Ford is doing here is recognizing that we are living in a multimodal world, where people might drive to a train station, take a train downtown and then bicycle to their destination. Or, just drive to within electric biking distance where parking is cheap and plentiful, and use the bike to cover the last few miles into town. According to Ford’s news release:

“There are so many ways to get around a city, but what is really needed is a way to connect all of these transport options together,” said Ken Washington, vice president, Ford Research and Advanced Engineering. “Being able to seamlessly move between cars, buses, trains and e-bikes and react to changing traffic situations can make a big difference both for commuters and for those delivering goods, services and healthcare.”
ford infographic

In this infographic, Ford talks of utilizing “the right mode of transport at the right time for the right situation” and how you can “beat the traffic by parking your focus and moving on the e-bike.” (Can’t read the small print above? See full-size PDF here.)

The specs on the e-bike (200-watt motor with a 9 amp hours battery) are not really relevant. What matters is the concept of going multimodal — having a folding electric bike that fits in your trunk as neatly as the jack and handle — and that a car company like Ford is considering it as an option. The choice of a more expensive and elaborate e-bike is telling. I do a lot of multimodal transport with my Strida folding bike, on subways and even airplanes. However bikes with an electric boost are a lot easier for people who are not doing this every day. This is an option for people who drive, not cycle. 

It’s obvious to anyone who has tried to drive downtown in a big city recently that the car just doesn’t work in every situation, and that it's time to look at other options. There are a lot of people who are looking at solutions to this problem, but it's surprising to see a car company taking the lead.

Or maybe not — perhaps it's just recognition of the inevitable. As David Bailey, a professor of industrial strategy told the BBC: “They are trying to show they are environmentally friendly but also, in some cities, it is no longer possible to drive to the centre of town in a car.”

Change is inevitable, and Ford deserves credit for trying to stay ahead of it.

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Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.