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Car Culture: Are FordPass and the gig economy at odds?

Phil Berg
Car Culture

New technology only scares me in one place: my wallet. Last week Ford announced its $182 million investment in software firm Pivotal, which was the force in the development of the FordPass personal mobility application announced at January’s Detroit auto show. FordPass connects Ford to a “marketplace of mobility solutions,” as CEO Mark Fields explained.

Any consumer can download the FordPass mobile application software, which will arrange car sharing, parking places, cab rides, directions to restaurants — and also arrange to pay these service vendors through the user’s credit card. You don’t need to own a Ford or any vehicle, and the FordPass part is free. More new technology such as bike sharing and public transportation scheduling is coming from Ford via partnerships. Fields has recently been promoting that Ford’s aim is to turn the automaker into a one-stop shop to move people from points A to Z whether they want to become vehicle owners or not.

This is not a subtle cultural change in the auto industry: Instead of making cars that customers can plug their smartphones and mobile products into, such as with the cumbersome Sync and MyFord Touch platforms, FordPass is a mobile device platform that can have a vehicle attached to it. Or not. Ford top information officer Mary Klevorn explained earlier this year that she envisions FordPass to do for personal transportation what Apple’s iTunes platform has done for personal music listening.

Right now Pivotal is sharing its Silicon Valley processes of developing software with Ford engineers in Pivotal Labs office in notably car-optional Toronto.

“They have a very different way of starting their software designs,” one Dearborn-based Ford participant told us. Analyzing anthropology and applying it to drivers and mobile device users is just one new tool the car people from Dearborn are learning, our insider explained.

While I believe it’s great to look outside of car-necessary Detroit to see which way the world is heading, I can’t shake off the uneasy feeling I get hearing Fields use the word “solutions.” Every time I hear that overused descriptor, it makes me feel like I’m listening to an old-school salesman hard-selling new-school technology capabilities. When Ford spokespeople explain that FordPass will happily provide a wide variety of services — including live human guides — for people in need of mobility and travel, my instincts tell me to watch out for the bill. It’s free now, but then I remember when ATM machines were free once.

Where my mind goes when I hear more new services available from FordPass is a place I call the “expense account market.” FordPass, as well as budding mobility apps from GM and BMW, offer a lot of services similar to travel agents, online shopping and reservations, and online and mobile bill-paying apps, and in the process make all of these transactions simpler and much quicker. Almost every boss I’ve ever worked for demanded we use the quickest way to get something done. Just put the fees charged automatically by the app onto your expense account. So I can see from a productivity standpoint, apps like FordPass are a win-win. Almost.

Enter the booming “gig economy.” In March this year, Lawrence Katz and Alan Krueger, economics professors at Harvard and Princeton, respectively, presented a report “The Rise of Alternative Work Arrangements” showing that one of the fastest growing segments of the labor force in the U.S. are people working part-time jobs, or “gigs.” Most are not full-time employees, but have several part-time jobs and freelance. This gives them a flexible lifestyle to divide between work, family and play. It also does not give them an expense account.

I’m part of the gig economy, and I also follow a dictum drilled into me as a kid that if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. Arranging my mobility myself, not through an app like FordPass, is the only way I can be sure I’m keeping within a budget. Former Indycar racing team owner Pat Patrick used to fly across the country in coach class, explaining that the money he saved for his team could be better spent on an extra engine teardown to make his cars more competitive. Three Indy 500 wins and two championships prove his point.

What concerns me when I hear that car companies are now becoming software companies is that I won’t be able to leave the house and walk the dog without FordPass or Apple iMobility or perhaps a Nike AirPedo app charging me a subscription fee for each bundle of footsteps I’m signed up for that month, measured by GPS-enabled sensors that detect my movements. The prospect of having electronic butlers and valets follow me around making my life easier is seductive, but my gig economy reasoning warns me to not become too attached. Especially to a single car company. The echo in my head are words I’m paraphrasing from GM’s early chairman Alfred P. Sloan: “We don’t make cars, we make software.”