Automobile Goliath Ford today announced it will buy Chariot, the private shuttle service based in San Francisco born from startup incubator Y Combinator, in a move that speaks to the company's stated goal to become an integral part of how people move about cities. Business Insider reports the all-cash deal, which is for an undisclosed sum, is the first step in Ford's plan to immediately expand what is currently a San Fransisco-only service to five other cities — at least one of which, according to the Chronicle, is to be outside the US — within 18 months.
What's more, the Chronicle informs us that Ford is also taking over Bay Area Bike Share, partnering with bike-sharing firm Motivate to spread 7,000 bikes throughout the region by 2018 — a deal which Mayor Ed Lee touted this morning in a press conference in front of City Hall. The service will now be called Ford GoBike, with many new bike station sites appearing in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, San Jose and Emeryville. As KQED reports, this is all part of Ford's effort to reimagine itself as an "auto and mobility" business.*
“We’re taking a look at the whole ecosystem of moving people around,” Ford CEO Mark Fields told the Chronicle. “Cities are growing. They’re becoming more congested. Cities are looking for solutions, and we want to be part of the solution.”
The purchase of Chariot is likely to inject the growing shuttle service, a company that has managed to avoid the pitfalls that sunk luxury competitor Leap, with even more life. Chariot presently has 28 routes across San Francisco, and has grown in popularity with routes that tend to alternate from the morning to evening to match commuting patterns.
"Mark Fields first came out to San Francisco 18 months ago," Chariot CEO Ali Vahabzadeh told Business Insider. "They knew that the transportation landscape was evolving, and they didn't just want to be part of that, they wanted to be a leader."
Of course, Chariot has also faced significant criticism from transit advocates who say such services only encourage disinvestment in public transportation. But for those who need to get from the Marina to downtown without touching the "Dirty 30," it's been a godsend and cheaper than a cab.
Ford's planned purchase (it has yet to go through) follows the company's announcement that it is working to develop a fleet of self-driving taxis by 2021. It is also of a piece with General Motors investment in ride-hail company Lyft — both car companies are clearly trying to diversify as the 21st century transportation landscape is rapidly defined by the likes of Uber, Lyft, and the promise of self-driving cars.
This, of course, is not the first time car companies have invested in other forms of transportation. As the Chronicle notes, makers of automobiles used to buy up public transportation and then shut it down — driving more people to cars. Hopefully history won't repeat itself.
* This post has been updated with more information about Ford GoBike.