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For A Successful Future, Ford Looks To Court Teens, Car-Sharers


If you're wondering what the car of the future will look like, well, Sheryl Connelly is too. In fact she's doing a lot more than wondering. She is Ford Motor Company's manager of global consumer trends and futuring - that's right, futuring. Connelly spoke with me earlier today from the Detroit Auto Show. One of the things she's been thinking about is the sharp decline in the number of 16-year-olds with driver's licenses, and she mentioned some statistics from the Department of Transportation.

SHERYL CONNELLY: They showed a study that in 1978, 50 percent of 16-year-olds had their license, and in 2008 that number was down to 30 percent. So only 3 out of every 10 16-year-old's getting the license does raise an eyebrow or two, and so we have to ask ourselves why. And, fundamentally, you can't deny the economics, so when I was a teenager I got my driver's education through the local high school...

BLOCK: Me too.

CONNELLY: And it was free. But today, you know, if you're a parent, you know, it can cost several hundred dollars, but I - probably the biggest focus is technology. So you, you know, when you think about the millennials, their parents are baby boomers. The traditional baby boomer bought their first car at 16 and saw that getting their driver's license is a rite of passage to becoming an adult. And today I'd argue that the cellphone does that for our kids. And so we have to recognize that for companies, like Ford, to reach that younger consumer it's not going to be about aspiration or status symbol. It's going to be about a lifestyle accessory, a toolbox on wheels that allows them to stay connected to the things that are most important to them.

BLOCK: Doesn't that cut across all the studies, though, that show that distracted driving is a huge problem, and, if anything, car makers should be pressured to provide fewer distractions in the car?

CONNELLY: Sure, I mean, that is an extraordinary challenge today. So Ford's response to that has been to make sure that we build platforms that keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road. We have just bought - announced an app called Life360 that will tell, like, your social circle when you get in the car not to text you. And then when you stop the car and you park and shut it off it'll tell you that you're now ready to receive text messages and to engage. We also have a do not disturb button that basically lets that car become a sanctuary.

BLOCK: As somebody who is paying attention to trends, and thinking about environmental trends in particular, I'd be curious to hear how climate change factors into the work you do and how a company like Ford has to think about cars as a driver of climate change.

CONNELLY: We actually see mobility as a fundamental human right and just putting more and more vehicles on the road may not serve people in the way that we hope. And so we have to think about multi-modes of transportation. We have to think about sharing economy. We are partnered with Zipcar to understand that some people treasure access more than ownership.

BLOCK: What about besides cars putting Ford in a position to be involved with other kinds of transportation - rapid transit, things like that?

CONNELLY: Sure, so we explore all of those things. I mean, Zipcar is one arena that we kind of look at, but there are other sharing experiments that we have going on in different countries around the world. And we recently announced last month 25 experiments on mobility that we're using to try to understand where this is going. Of course, autonomous driving vehicles is something that's top of mind for consumers out there. And the real benefits of autonomous driving vehicles outside of even just distracted driving could mean things like, you know, road fatalities or accidents in general could be mitigated. These vehicles have so many computers and sensors - that innovation feels like it's within reach.

BLOCK: Well, Sheryl Connelly, thanks for talking with us about the future of the car.

CONNELLY: Oh, it's been my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: Sheryl Connelly is the in-house futurist for the Ford Motor Company. She spoke with us from the Detroit Auto Show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.