Ford investing in ride-hailing services, expanding electric vehicles

DEARBORN, Mich. (Reuters) - Ford Motor Co F.N is developing new ride-hailing services and investing $4.5 billion to expand its fleet of plug-in and hybrid electric vehicles, company executives said Thursday.

The corporate logo of Ford is seen at a Ford branch in Caracas March 27, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

The initiatives are part of a broader effort by Chief Executive Officer Mark Fields to counter threats posed by companies offering alternatives to car ownership and regulators who want vehicles to emit less carbon dioxide.

Ford’s latest effort to explore the ride-hailing business will take the form of a fleet of specially designed Transit vans that company employees can hail using an app to get rides around the automaker’s sprawling campus in Dearborn, Michigan. Ford executives said their intent is to develop a commercial ride-hailing service, not just to sell vehicles to ride-hailing companies such as Uber or Lyft.

“The market for vehicle miles traveled is $5 trillion,” Fields said on the sidelines of a media presentation at Ford’s Dearborn design center. “We get zero of that.”

Without offering specifics, Ken Washington, Ford’s vice president of research, said Ford is considering expanding the van-hailing service beyond its corporate campus, offering an alternative to rides in private cars or journeys on city buses.

“Our vision is to be a mobility service provider, beyond building a vehicle that would be in somebody else’s fleet,” said Washington. “We see this as a business we want to be in.”

As a vehicle maker, Washington said, Ford can more "seamlessly" integrate the software and hardware needed to operate a ride-hailing system. The soaring value of Uber has forced auto executives to consider the potential of "shared mobility" services. Tesla Motors Inc TSLA.O Chief Executive Elon Musk has dropped hints that he is considering some form of ride-sharing service in the future.

“The auto names are late to the game,” said Mark Shurtleff, an analyst who tracks the ride-sharing and ride-hailing industries. Moreover, Shurtleff said, it is not clear how big the ride-hailing market is outside of a few big cities.

Ford's electric vehicle push comes as rivals, including General Motors Co GM.N and Volkswagen AG VOWG_p.DE are touting new electric vehicles aimed at satisfying governmental clean vehicle mandates and a still-small cadre of consumers who value zero-emission transportation.

Fields said it will launch late next year a new version of its Ford Focus electric car that has a 100-mile (160-km) range and can recharge in 30 minutes.

Ford also plans to add 13 new plug-in hybrid, hybrid or electric vehicles to its lineup by 2020, moving to more than 40 percent the share of the company’s vehicle lines that will be electrified.

Fields said the company sees plug-in hybrid systems - which allow drivers to operate part of the time on batteries recharged from the grid, and part of the time on gasoline - as the solution many customers will prefer. The batteries for plug-in hybrids are not as heavy or expensive as those required to deliver 200-mile or more range in an all-electric vehicle.

Reporting by Joe White; Editing by Alden Bentley and Lisa Shumaker