Over the past century, automakers helped transform US cities — in good ways and bad. The industry helped people move freely, and it delivered good-paying jobs. At the same time, it profited off a network of highways that cut through cities, breaking apart communities of color. 

Now that the auto industry is at a turning point — embracing transformative new products, services and business models — there’s an opportunity to root out the inequities built into existing transportation networks. 

With that opportunity, Ford also sees a chance to build up its reputation as a responsible corporate citizen. The carmaker also a chance to build closer ties to the policy makers that will set the rules of the road for the automobile industry of tomorrow.

“As part of this transformative period that we’re in, we have to really think differently,” Ford Mobility Strategist Justine Johnson told ZDNet. “We’re seeing a lot of cities that are really focusing on walkable and equitable communities. And we really believe that we have to do our part to be a leader, specifically when we talk about the transformation of mobility… about building the ecosystem for more mobility offerings. This whole process is really about being intentional about that, and we think bringing these issues to the forefront is really what is setting [Ford] apart.”

That’s why Ford this week hosted the first of three virtual summits it’s holding this year to discuss the “city of tomorrow.” The first summit focused on mobility and equity. Ford executives, municipal leaders, academics and other experts discussed issues like street safety and bias in AI — problems that can disproportionately impact communities of color. 

Ahead of the conference, Johnson spoke with ZDNet about equity and mobility and what Ford’s doing about it. Here are some highlights of that conversation:

Building better algorithms

The future of transportation will undoubtedly include a heavy dose of artificial intelligence — which means the problems of bias that plague AI could impact new modes of mobility. 

Preventing this “is not just a singular approach,” Johnson said. “We have to be thoughtful about the data that is generated from these types of equipment. And when we think about vehicle sensors, when we think about LIDAR systems, we have to be mindful that we are making sure that all people are recognized — regardless of their race, gender, physical ability or whatever.”

Ford certainly has a big part to play here — in 2018, the company committed to spending $4 billion through 2023 on the development of autonomous vehicles. At the same time, its AI strategy relies heavily on a number of partners, like Intel’s Mobileye and Argo.ai.  “I would say it takes a village on this one,” Johnson said.

Supporting diverse workforces and investing in the talent pipeline

“Within the space of AI development and machine learning, it’s really important for us to hire folks of diverse backgrounds,” Johnson said. “That is a really important contributing factor to help pressure test a lot of the assumptions that we have around data, and to create the space of inclusion so that we are empowering others to really be critical thinkers about the data that is generated.” 

To that end, Ford is investing in the “talent pipeline” at historically black colleges and universities, as well as other higher education institutions. The company recently helped open a $75 million “equity-centered” robotics lab at the University of Michigan. 

Creating last-mile and on-demand transit options 

The future of transportation doesn’t just include autonomous cars — Ford and other automakers are making investments in a whole range of mobility services, from scooter rentals to dynamic routing software for public transit. Johnson makes the case that these “last mile” services will create more equitable transit systems by helping those without access to cars. 

“Historically, most municipalities thought, ‘Oh, no one really cares about scooters, they’re more these recreational uses,” she said. “But we’ve now seen how many people are utilizing scooters to get to work or… to hang out with their family. It’s a good opportunity to… really connect with the built environment.”

Meanwhile, Johnson said public transportation is “the backbone of how people move.” Yet with fixed routes, “It might be a challenge for someone — whether age is a factor or ability — just to get onto a shared mode.”


Listening to community feedback

Ford Mobility has a “City Solutions” team comprising people with a range of backgrounds, including public policy, engineering, public health, business and so on. They work with cities to tackle problems in four areas: safety, sustainability, accessibility, and equity.

A key part of building solid relationships with cities, Johnson said, is simply listening to feedback. That’s why the Ford-owned Spin scooter company is piloting new scooters that can scoot themselves out of the way if a rider leaves them on the sidewalk. 

“Our Spin scooter team is working on a Level 2 scooter essentially that it is utilizing a series of sensors to understand where there may be parking issues,” Johnson said. “We took an approach of really understanding what are some of the challenges that people are facing with scooters… We kind of went back to the drawing board and said, cities are having a hard time, especially when thinking about access for the sidewalk. We want we want scooters to stay, but we just have to figure out a way how to do that. It’s really important that we continue to make decisions that way — we have to think about technology that is inclusive of what human beings actually need and what they want.”

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