Ford charts cautious path toward self-driving, shared vehicles

DETROIT (Reuters) - Ford Motor Co F.N Chief Executive Mark Fields is looking for more deals to advance the automaker's expansion into ride services and autonomous vehicles, but will not rush to match big spending by auto industry rivals, he told Reuters.

Ford CEO Mark Fields speaks at his company's keynote at the 2015 International Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Investors comparing the size of Ford’s investments to what other automakers have announced are “looking at the wrong scoreboard,” Fields said in an interview at Ford headquarters on Tuesday, ahead of the company’s annual late-summer investor meeting.

"Don't confuse activity for progress," Fields said in response to questions about why Ford's future 'mobility' investments appear to lag those of competitors such as General Motors Co GM.N, Daimler AG DAIGn.DE and Toyota Motor Corp 7203.T.

Mobility is the term auto companies and investors use to describe the next wave of personal transportation, which is still largely car-based but includes a wide range of services from ride sharing to automated driving and parking.

Fields and other top Ford executives are scheduled to meet on Wednesday with investors and analysts to address concerns that the automaker is heading into a cyclical downturn in the United States market, which generates the bulk of Ford’s profit.

Fields is expected to highlight the prospects for Ford to jump-start growth over the next several years by developing new businesses using autonomous, or self-driving, vehicles and internet-enabled services such as shuttle vans that can be hailed using a smartphone app.

A Reuters analysis of automaker investments in future mobility startups estimates that Ford has spent less than $500 million in the sector over the past five years, while Toyota has spent more than $1.1 billion, GM more than $1.2 billion and Daimler more than $1.4 billion.

So far, the Dearborn, Michigan-based automaker has announced a steady stream of relatively small deals. GM, in contrast, has highlighted bigger moves such as its $700 million acquisition of driving startup Cruise Automation and a $500 million investment in ride services company Lyft.

GM has outlined plans to use its alliance with Lyft to place electric and autonomous vehicles in ride services fleets, while expanding car sharing through its Maven brand.

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Ford has focused on smaller startups in such fields as laser sensors, mapping, artificial intelligence and data analytics. Last week, Ford said it had acquired Chariot, a San Francisco-based startup that provides a local on-demand shuttle service with dynamic routing capability.

Fields said the company has a “contingency fund” to finance future investments that fit into Ford’s long-range mobility strategy, but wants to “make sure we are investing wisely” in a field where less than half the prospects offer real value.

Fields said Ford will “leave all options open” for partnerships and acquisitions to expand its services business.

“It will take time to scale some of these new businesses,” he said. Until then, Fields said those ventures will be funded in part by Ford’s core business, including its high-volume, high-margin pickup trucks.

Ford also will place “a high priority on stable and sustainable dividends,” Fields said. Ford’s current dividend yield is nearly 4.7 percent.

Ford shares are down 12 percent for the year to date,reflecting investors’ concerns that vehicle sales in the United States are slowing down.

“Investors are so focused on when the next recession is coming and what happens to auto stocks in the recession, they’re not paying a huge amount of attention to whether GM’s strategy of spending big to position itself for the next era of mobility or Ford’s strategy of going late with less of a checkbook is the right one,” Barclays Capital analyst Brian Johnson said on Tuesday.

Ford jolted investors on July 28 when it released second-quarter results that fell short of Wall Street expectations, and Chief Financial Officer Robert Shanks said “the growth is over” in the U.S. market. Ford shares fell 8 percent, and have not fully recovered since.

GM shares are stuck in the doldrums too, down 9 percent for the year despite beating Wall Street profit expectations in the second quarter.

Reporting by Paul Lienert; Editing by Joseph White and Bill Rigby