Ford Motor Company was the unlikely name offering an ambitious vision of the future at this year's mammoth Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this week.
Typically a venue where keynotes from the giants of Silicon Valley and other tech-dominated corners are the highlights, Ford presented a plan to remake cities and our transportation system that would seem on the surface to benefit many of those tech elites, but not necessarily, well... Ford.
Ford unveiled a grand plan of future urban dwelling that involved ride-sharing driverless cars, deliveries via self-driving tech and cars that communicate with everything in a city environment, from stoplights and smart bike racks to pedestrians and bicyclists.
The legacy carmaker announced a new partnership with Postmates to run pilot programs using self-driving tech to make deliveries. It also teased a collaboration with one or more cities to test drive new self-driving vehicles - the city will be revealed later this year.
The takeaway is that Ford has lined up a lot partners and is devoting a lot of R&D resources to make transportation and transit (in cities, at least) more efficient and interconnected in anticipation of a sensor-filled future in which not just everyone, but everything, is online.
This would seem to be at odds with the model that has worked for Ford for so long, which is basically to transform as many individuals as possible into owners of (at least one) vehicle. Few things could seem to be more destructive to this model than the concept of ride-sharing, and yet Ford is continuing its high-profile partnership with Lyft.
Apparently the company has seen the writing on the wall (in bold-faced block letters) that millennials are much less interested in automobile ownership than past generations. But is Ford really the company that seems most likely to bring us this bold new future? This company's bestseller has been a truck for years now, after all.
The whole grand charade of an overdue pivot masked as industry-leading innovation reminds me of a famous ad campaign from AT&T that boggles the mind to revisit today.
Back in 1993, AT&T was a giant legacy company facing a crossroads, much like Ford has been for years now. Computing and telecommunications technology were about to revolutionize society, and AT&T saw its grip starting loosen.
"We were slipping in a critical area. Consumer technology was rapidly being overwhelmed by companies like Sony and Panasonic in areas of video and music and computing," recalls Glen Kaiser, who ran the ad campaign. "That led to subsequent consumer research showing AT&T was losing the public perception battle across a number of tech attributes, including "most likely to bring new technology to the lives of 18-34 year-olds."
Gee, sounds an awful lot like what we're hearing about the same demographic and huge legacy corporations like Ford today.
So AT&T put out a rather impressive string of commercials, basically predicting the future and literally tagging each spot by claiming it would be the company to make it all happen.
I remember seeing these ads during Sunday football as a teenager and being captivated. They're still captivating to go back and watch today and see that most of the predictions came through: video calls, e-commerce, streaming media, online learning, remote security, smartwatches, instant translation; it's all part of our lives today, just like AT&T promised years before most of us got our first email address.
(Ok, so faxes on the beach and drivers license renewal at ATMs aren't popular, but no one bats 1.000.)
Here's the thing though: go through that long list of far-off concepts turned realities and it's safe to say that we don't associate any of them today with AT&T. What's more, those visionary ads miss arguably the biggest innovation of the past 25 years: the smartphone. It's ironic that one company can predict a number of big technologies, but fail to see how another technology (which already existed at the time) would be the platform through which we now access literally all of the innovations highlighted in that famous campaign.
Kind of makes you wonder if Ford might also be missing something obvious in its vision for the future.
I'm not sure what that might be, but I do have a pretty good idea that when I'm sitting in a self-driving rideshare in 2043 getting traffic data from the smart stoplight two blocks ahead, it might be a name other than Ford that I thank for bringing all those wondrous innovations into the mainstream.