Ford's de Waard: Customers appreciate if their data are used to help them anticipate things (Photo: Arjen Bongard)

Ford Motor, which is rapidly adapting its global business model, is gearing up to make a decisive move in its transition from pure car maker to provider of mobility services. Later this year, the company will roll out FordPass, a platform accessible via smartphone that will offer buyers and owners of Ford cars worldwide a more direct connection to the carmaker and associated service providers.

“FordPass is one of the most important things happening this year,” said Roelant de Waard, head of sales and marketing at Ford of Europe. In an interview at the Geneva auto show, he explained that FordPass is an app as well as a broad customer interface that allows direct contact with Ford to ask questions, book service appointments, order accessories and engage in other interactions. “It’s a tool with a lot of functionality,” de Waard said.

FordPass, which is one of 30 or so initiatives that are part of the carmaker’s “Smart Mobility” project, is open to Ford owners as well as to people driving other brands. It has four elements: A marketplace for mobility services; access to a call center with live “FordGuides” who can answer questions; a loyalty program; and a new network of physical storefronts where people can experience Ford innovations.

FordPass will underpin Ford’s move into smart mobility offerings such as car sharing or parking services, de Waard said. “It will become a very important tool for customers and dealers.”

De Waard acknowledged that customers are rightly concerned about data privacy as they increasingly are asked to share personal data and data from their connected cars with dealers and automakers. But he added that a lot depends on how the car company handles the data and communicates its intentions. “It’s often not particularly transparent to the customer what you can do with the data,” he said. “If you give the customer the feeling that you’re spying on him, that’s a negative; But if you anticipate something they didn’t think of themselves, they are often very grateful.”

Data-gathering challenge

Ford already collects data from customers and vehicles worldwide and the company has a multi-year program to make better use of this information. The difficulty: Some databases are at regional Ford company headquarters, many are held locally in country organizations and just as many are in the hands of dealer groups that, more often than not, use different dealer management systems. “There are many databases that have to be connected,” de Waard said. “The data are there, but integrating them to deal intelligently with the customer journey is the big challenge.” FordPass will help in generating usable data, he predicted,because it provides a common customer interface.

fordpass-veh-controls-300x201 Ford owners can use FordPass to access vehicle features (Photo: Ford)

Ford sees connectivity and its range of “Ecoboost” engines as the two major pillars underpinning future sales growth. The new generation of Ford vehicles is equipped with the company’s 3rd generation Sync system, which industry experts say is a major improvement from the heavily criticized Sync 2. The new Sync system is powered by QNX software and offers connectivity through Apple’s CarPlay, AndroidAuto and the Mirrorlink smartphone interfaces.

Sync has long included voice controls as a key HMI feature and de Waard said the technology has significantly improved in recent years, especially in its ability to understand natural speech. “You can now talk to the car normally and say things like ”˜I have to stop for gas,’ or”˜I’m looking for a hotel,’” de Waard said. “We’re making big steps here.”

The sales chief believes connected features are essential for any car coming to market today. “But the bigger question is what you will do with that connectivity,” he said. Car-to-car communication, with its ability to warn for hazards around the corner or pinpoint an available parking spot, will provide at least one answer to that question, de Waard predicted. “And it will go very quickly.”

By Arjen Bongard