The times, they are a-changin’

This isn’t a rant. It’s just an open, unanswered query about where the future of the automobile is going. It’s being posed by yours truly, whose born-on date was in 1956, back when Chrysler was a fully American-owned company that had just introduced the New Yorker St. Regis series. Between the expanding national network of Interstate highways with high speed limits, stock cars on the beach at Daytona, drag racing sweeping California and a field full of Kurtis roadsters at Indianapolis, it was a wonderful time to enter the world of cars. Lately, I find myself wondering what a car’s likely to be, and to do, in the near future.

Consider the moves that the Ford Motor Company has announced over the past week or so. First of all, Ford announced that it has entered a partnership with Transportation Mobility Cloud developer Autonomic, which will develop cloud-based computing and connectivity technologies for all Ford vehicles. Stripped to its basics, the deal will allow Ford to stick to its historic job of building cars and trucks, while outsourcing the connectivity work to a partner with vast expertise and technical resources. In the marketplace, the collaboration will be powered by Amazon Web Services, from the same company owned by Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest human, and through which many of us got a start buying discounted books.

In perhaps bigger news, Ford also disclosed its plans to invest half a billion dollars in Rivian, a startup manufacturer of electric vehicles based in Plymouth, Michigan. Rivian was founded in 2009 by engineer R.J. Scaringe, and recently picked up another $700 million in investment from, yes, Amazon. The firm has developed a fully electric pickup and SUV, which it hopes to produce in volume at the former Mitsubishi assembly plant in Normal, Illinois, being renovated with more than $200 million ponied up by investors that include a Saudi bank. The whole deal looks good to Ford, as this photo of Scaringe (left) and executive chairman Bill Ford Jr. abundantly indicates.

Rivian will use a shared “skateboard” platform incorporating all propulsion and battery systems to power its vehicles. So what can this startup do for Ford, which earned its chops building Model Ts at Highland Park and River Rouge? According to some sources, the Rivian deal with Ford came together after similar talks with General Motors reached an impasse. Ford Jr., the company’s top executive, said it will give his family’s business a quicker way to develop and engineer electric vehicles, such as a planned SUV and electric version of Ford’s all-conquering F-150. The infusion of new cyber technology and electric power have put today’s global auto industry in a state of flux and dizzying change that we haven’t experienced since the safety revolution of the 1970s and forward. Ford made its announcement just as it unveiled a quarterly financial report that showed quarterly losses, in part from dropping the Focus subcompact. Electro-vehicle market leader Tesla also announced significant operating losses. Honda and GM have partnered to bring autonomous vehicles to market, a segment of the industry that also involves Waymo, an operating partner of Google. What’s all this mean? I can’t say, given that I’m still reaching for a level of comfort and confidence with computers that allow what you’re reading here to exist. But the new partnerships and dizzying pace of technological development, I daresay, is going to transform the auto industry in a way that none of us could have ever imagined even a decade ago. Whether it’s all for the better is something we’ll all come to learn as time moves ahead.

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