Bike sharing is just one of the disruptive travel modes Ford is studying.

To stay alive in today's changing world, Ford might have to disrupt the modern transportation game and do more than just sell cars. New York Times staffer David Gelles profiles the company leading the charge for the auto manufacturer's next wave of business, Ideo, a design firm that specializes in innovative research for clients such as Samsung, 3M, Anheuser-Busch and Ford.

“Cars are expensive. There are all these new travel options. More things are getting delivered,” said David King, a professor of urban studies at Columbia University. “All of this adds up to a dramatically changing relationship with travel.”

The design firm is investigating multimodal transportation for Ford, and both companies are trying to pinpoint opportunities for involvement in future transportation methods. But, as Gelles states, what kinds of opportunities aren't clear yet. When Henry Ford started producing automobiles in 1908, there was no market for cars. “If I had asked people what they wanted,” Mr. Ford famously said, “they would have said faster horses.” The company is again, 100 years later, trying to envision innovations in travel for the next 100 years.

Starting in September, a Ford team led by Mr. Farrelly began working with Mr. Roberts and a handful of Ideo designers, with the loose goal of bringing a new product to market in 2016. There was no mandate to design a specific new app or service. Instead, the project started with questions. In April, the company will introduce FordPass, an app that offers a suite of services including car sharing and electronic payments for parking.

Ford is working hard to avoid being undone by new technologies. Besides its existing experiments with ride sharing and FordPass, there are reports that Ford is working with Google on self-driving cars. Most other big carmakers are experimenting in similar ways. Whatever Ideo cooks up for Ford will be a tiny part of the carmaker’s broader strategy. By trying to understand the hearts and minds of commuters who rely on buses, subways and their own feet, Ford hopes to at least be relevant in a more complex future, perhaps one with fewer cars.

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