Last week Ford shares fell to their lowest closing price in more than three years. They've dropped 19 percent since January 2015, when CEO Mark Fields launched his signature initiative, Ford Smart Mobility, a plan to take the 112-year-old manufacturer into the realm of transportation services. After Ford said it would reward shareholders with a $1 billion special dividend, shares fell 5 percent the next day.
One analyst, Adam Jonas of Morgan Stanley, went so far as to compare Ford's talk of "huge opportunity" in a world of shared and self-driving vehicles to bullishness from Kodak, Blockbuster and other companies that crashed when new technology left them behind. Automakers are facing potential competition from businesses they have never had to be concerned with until now.
"I can't spin that positively," Jonas said this month at the Automotive News World Congress. "The stock market's like 'Hey, we've seen this before. This industry is incredibly ripe for disruption. The disruption's probably not going to come from the 100-year-old mechanical legacy.'"
Fields, Ford's CEO since mid-2014, bristled at the notion his management team is naive about the risks posed by Uber and other new ways for consumers to get around. "We get it," Fields told Jonas at a Jan. 12 conference hosted by Deutsche Bank in Detroit. "We are taking this very, very seriously as a company, and we want to lead in it."
So seriously, in fact, that Ford spent much of the Detroit auto show media days talking not about a new vehicle but rather about a smartphone app called FordPass. The company wants all consumers -- whether they own a vehicle or not -- to let Ford help them get around their city by using the app to reserve parking, call a personal assistant and pay for expenses incurred on the go. Fields said Ford wants to do for mobility what iTunes did for music -- and for Apple Inc., which was teetering toward bankruptcy in the 1990s.
The challenge for Ford is that there are myriad companies doing similar things, and many others that tried, failed and were quickly forgotten.