Ford CEO Mark Fields says the 112-year-old company is tripling its investment in new technologies that will ultimately lead to self-driving vehicles - but will make sure to keep making cars for drivers who want to keep their hands on the wheel.
Fields said it was no coincidence that Ford chose the Mobile World Congress, a massive technology trade show in Barcelona, to unveil its new Kuga SUV, which features its latest connectivity and driver-assisted technology.
"We are really emphasizing our transition from an auto company to an auto and mobility company,'' Fields told The Associated Press in an interview Monday at Ford's stand, which stood out in a sea of smartphone and gadget makers.
"This is a really good audience to reach some new folks,'' he said.
The Kuga includes the latest version of Ford's connectivity technology, SYNC 3, which the company says includes improved voice commands and makes it easier to access applications on a driver's smartphone. It has a new 1.5-liter diesel engine, among other features.
Fields said that over the next five years investment will increase threefold in autonomous driving technologies, such as one-button parking assistance and guidance to keep a car in its lane and help braking in heavy traffic, with the ultimate goal of a fully autonomous car. He declined to provide financial figures.
Don Butler, Ford's executive director of connected vehicle and services, told the AP "we like to think about it as the transition from just a hardware company to a software and mobility services company as well.''
"Mobility'' is a buzzword at the wireless show. For Ford customers, it means a wide range of innovations from further integration of the Internet in cars, to ride-sharing and even the use of other modes of transport in conjunction with cars, like bicycles.
Fields said Ford is aware it will have to be careful to keep a hold on the traditional car driver, by protecting - especially in the United States - the aura of personal freedom that automakers have always cast over their products.
Ford is taking a "dual path'' in developing the connected car, said Fields. One for those who want to be assisted by the car or eventually have the vehicle take over, and another for drivers who want to keep control of the wheel.
While going forward with developing semi- and fully autonomous cars, Fields said "clearly there will be a part of the population that will always want to drive and have that driving pleasure, and we are obviously going to provide them great products for that.''
With ride-sharing platforms like Uber reshaping driving for many young would-be consumers, Ford is also staking part of its future on getting a piece of the so-called sharing economy by pushing into car- and ride-sharing.
"Across the world when you see growth of these megacities, with 10 million or more folks, people want mobility solutions, they want options, whether it's car-sharing, ride-sharing, what we call multi-modal modes of transportation where you are taking a car for a portion of a journey or a train and then maybe a bike,'' said Fields.
He said Ford is testing some programs in this field, which he sees as a "a big revenue opportunity.''
Those projects include car-sharing in London and across Germany. Ford is also working on an experimental e-bikes program that Butler said it could one day mesh with car-sharing.