SAN FRANCISCO – Ford is making a big push to get intimately involved with the daily mobility needs of all motorists, regardless of whether they own a Ford automobile.

In April, the  automaker will launch a smartphone app called FordPass that helps users with parking and other services, provides live assistants via chat or voice, and offers reward-based programs with partner companies. Although FordPass can be used by anyone, it offers the most benefits to Ford vehicle owners.

Ford also will roll out four new FordHubs that, much like interactive kiosks at events such as the North American International Motor Show, opening Monday in Detroit, are designed to showcase the company’s various Ford Smart Mobility initiatives. They won’t be points of sale.

“We don’t just want to be in the vehicle business, we want to be in the connected relationship business,” Ford CEO Mark Fields told USA TODAY. “Anyone can make an app. This is more than that. It’s about a platform that has a digital as well as physical presence in the lives of anyone who uses transportation.”

FordPass is a bold and logical step from Fields. Since taking the reins in 2014, he’s been maneuvering his company to to source new revenue streams in a transportation future powered by Millennials who typically see more value in car sharing than ownership. Fields has been particularly aggressive in pushing forward into autonomous cars — fleets of which may form the next great urban transportation network — and driver-assist systems, both of which he discussed at last week’s auto-tech-filled 2016 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Ford executives say that the 18-month project leveraged deep dives into a range of digital branding successes including Amazon’s Mayday button (which summons a live consultant to a Kindle Fire screen), Burberry’s in-store digital runaway experiences (bringing apparel to life for shoppers) and Nespresso’s customer-centric strategy (which includes a mix of retail outlets and phone consultants).

When FordPass launches, users can book and pay for off-street parking in advance. Partner companies will include ParkWhiz and Parkopedia. Using the app, another partner, FlightCar, offers the opportunity to rent out your vehicle for pay while you’re away on a trip. FordPass will be available first in the U.S. and Canada, followed by specific European markets as well as China and Brazil.

Tapping into even the smallest percentage of mobility-related transactions of commuters would result in significant sales. Similarly, FordPass app fans who might be in the market for a vehicle could translate to new customers.

Fields says FordPass may well be used by people “who may never buy a Ford, but we still want to be part of making their lives easier.”

Also part of the FordPass roll out is a user loyalty program with two initial partners, McDonald’s and 7-Eleven. While details are still coming into focus, the idea is that FordPass users who shop at those businesses can accrue points while in turn the retailers can offer shopping incentives to users through the app. At launch, the partnership roster seems thin. But Fields says the company is carefully evaluating who to sync up to FordPass. . “There has to be a meeting of minds,” he said.

Not surprisingly, the full suite of FordPass options are available only to Ford car owners, specifically those with vehicles equipped with Sync Connect infotainment systems. The FordPass app will provide access to features such as remote start, lock and unlock, vehicle location assistance, updates on fluid levels, and the opportunity to schedule dealership appointments.


The idea is both to own more of the consumer’s share of mind and wallet as well as becoming a more positive presence in their lives, says Stephen Odell, Ford executive vice president for global marketing, sales and service.

“We’re in an industry that is not at the higher echelons of consumer experience,” he says. “After the excitement of selecting a car, the buying, financing and servicing tends to be in a negative column. But we can change that.”

Odell notes that Ford research shows that on average a Ford customer spends between four and five hours a year with a dealer, and much of that time is fraught with repair cost worries.

In contrast, “people on average spend 900 hours a year interacting with mobility options. So it occurred to us that we should be part of those 900 hours, and if can bring them mobility help then maybe they’ll enjoy the brand.”

Odell and Elena Ford, the company’s vice president of global dealer and consumer experience, ran through a detailed presentation of the new initiatives for USA TODAY via video chat. A room papered with a variety of presentations featured screen shots of app pages, logos of potential global partners and illustrations of FordHub locations.

Pointing at one poster with the face of a smiling man, Ford said the team created a day-in-the-life scenario for a typical FordPass user.

“He wakes up and uses the app to start his (Ford) car, locates and pays for parking, schedules a service appointment, stop by a McDonald’s to redeem a loyalty gift and uses the FordGuide for help when he gets a flat,” says Ford. “Those 900 hours (a year) give us a chance to make customers feel valued.”

Stay with USA TODAY tech reporter @marcodellacava for more auto tech news from CES.