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Ford Approaching Electric Scooters with Care

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
Consumer Trends
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When Ford acquired the electric scooter company Spin last year, it looked like a pretty smart move. After all, the urban landscape is rapidly pivoting to embrace more two-wheeled, zero emission forms of transportation.

On the other hand, the urban electric scooter movement has hit some major speed bumps in terms of public image. A large part of the problem is that users of app-based, dockless rental systems tend to drop off their scooters willy-nilly. They block sidewalks, clutter the streetscape, and create a costly enforcement headache for local officials. Pedestrian safety and liability are other big issues. As a result, more cities and college campuses are beginning to clamp down on the app-based electric scooter business.

So, how does Ford expect to dive into this market without damaging its public image? At its core, Ford’s strategy pivots on attracting a new generation of mobility consumers by expanding its brand reputation for trust.

Brand reputation and electric scooters, Lesson One

The brand reputation issue has been simmering for a while. It came into sharp focus earlier this month, when the company Lime packed up its scooters and took them out of Tempe, Arizona.

Lime made no secret about the reason for leaving Tempe. The city recently established new regulations aimed at counterbalancing a business model that piggybacks on public rights-of-way.

One main issue for local legislators is that companies like Lime use public property free of charge, yet they incur new costs related to enforcement and sidewalk maintenance.

In addition to contesting a new daily fee to operate in Tempe, Lime also took issue with a new liability requirement.

Nevertheless, Tempe forged ahead with the regulatory new plan. The idea is to put the new operating fees toward improved enforcement and maintenance. Funding additional infrastructure improvements for cyclists and pedestrians is another part of the plan.

An electric scooter opportunity for Ford

The departure of Lime was not the end of the line for electric scooters in Tempe.

Ford’s Spin was one of two other companies to apply for a license to operate electric scooters in Tempe under the new regulatory scheme, and Ford seems ready to dive right in.

According to local news reports, on Friday, February 16, Spin launched 600 electric scooters in nearby Mesa, mainly in areas near Mesa Community College.

That staging plan fits into Ford’s broader mobility strategy and its focus on sustainability.

Several years ago, Ford began looking for solutions to the “last mile” issue that urban transportations systems face. The problem is that urban drivers typically have clear sailing until they are practically within walking distance of their destination, but then they get bogged down by traffic congestion and lack of parking.

The issue is similar for mass transit users who don’t have a stop located within convenient walking distance from their destination.

In that framework, electric scooters form a bridge over the last mile of a commute, like a reverse park-and-ride.

The community college staging also dovetails with the changing face of the mobility market. Ford is among those recognizing that the next generation of young car buyers is evaporating. For a number of reasons, young people are not buying cars at the same rate as they had in the past.

By getting college students into the scooter rental habit, Ford may be growing the market for future scooter purchases as well as rentals.

According to azcentral.com, Tempe is just one among several other Arizona cities on the drawing boards for Spin’s electric scooter expansion.

A recipe for success

One reason why Ford has a good shot at success is that it has generations-long experience in working within regulatory structures.

Another important factor is Ford’s long experience in market research and its history of innovative research and development partnerships.

Last fall, for example, Ford partnered with Purdue University on a four week, campus-wide research project aimed at evaluating electric scooters as a last mile solution. The project, dubbed Jelly, is also aimed at providing urban policy makers and civil engineers with guidance on planning for two-wheeled and pedestrian infrastructure.

Brand reputation and electric scooters, Lesson Two

Perhaps the most important factor is the acquisition of an electric scooter company that matches Ford’s emerging brand identity as an innovative, responsible partner for urban mobility solutions.

Ford acquired Spin under its “Ford X” alternative mobility division. In contrast to the open market, “wild west” model adopted by other electric scooter providers, Spin has established a solid reputation of responsibility. It works closely with cities and universities to develop a plan that fits the local regulatory profile.

The vice president of Ford X, Sunny Madra, explained how Spin’s focus on affordable, convenient access for college students fits into Ford’s plans for adapting to the new mobility landscape:

“Affordability, combined with ease of use and electrified power, also means scooters can help tackle challenges such as traffic congestion, parking availability and pollution. This presents a significant opportunity as research shows nearly half of all trips made in the U.S. are 3 miles or less."

She also described the importance of Spin’s reputation in this growing market:

"They do not launch without permission; they share usage data with cities; and they work with local officials and university campuses to design educational tools around parking and riding rules. This approach aligns well with our values at Ford and with our aspiration to be the world’s most trusted company.”

Bottom line: as the market for urban electric scooter rentals expands, Ford’s focus on brand reputation puts it in a good position to compete.

Image credit: Spin/Facebook

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

Read more stories by Tina Casey