Spin, the dockless electric scooter startup, has a new owner: Ford. The news broke yesterday, and the auto giant officially confirmed the acquisition on Thursday morning. It probably won’t come as a big shock to those watching this fast-growing space. E-scooter startups that are barely a year old have spread like wildfire across the globe and seen their valuations skyrocket. It was only a matter of time until a company like Ford, which has funneled revenue from SUV and truck sales into a variety of mobility projects over the years, would eventually buy some scooters.
Ford has been collecting mobility startups over the years, like microtransit service Chariot, Ford GoBikes in San Francisco (which are technically operated by Lyft-owned Motivate), a handful of transportation software companies, and, more recently, an electric scooter research project with Purdue University called Jelly. It’s also backing self-driving startup Argo with $1 billion in investment over 10 years, and it has autonomous test vehicles on the street in Detroit, Pittsburgh, Miami, and Washington, DC.
It’s another sign that Ford, one of the oldest and most storied automakers in the world, sees the writing on the wall is not favorable to personal car ownership. Over the last few years, Ford has tried to position itself as an honest-to-god competitor to Silicon Valley upstarts like Google and Tesla by investing in self-driving cars as well as mobility ventures like car-sharing and private transit.
The acquisition of Spin is another sign that Ford doesn’t want to be seen as just a car (or pickup truck) company. And it isn’t difficult to see why: Ford’s profits have plunged, its investors are scrambling, and its credit rating is one step above junk status. And despite its best efforts, Ford is still slightly lagging behind its competitors in new mobility ventures. Waymo plans to roll out one of the first driverless taxi business later this year in Phoenix. GM promises a similar service next year, which will probably be in San Francisco. Ford’s robot rides are still three years away.
Snagging a scooter company is sure to be seen as an easy way to keep a toe in a fast-growing, if highly speculative, sector of the mobility economy. Neither company would disclose the amount of the deal.
“Ford’s acquisition of Spin is really an example of Bill Ford’s vision of being a mobility provider being actualized through the Ford X ‘other bets’ part of the organization,” said Michael Ramsey, a mobility analyst for Gartner. “Micromobility may be the left-field answer to the question of how we will get around in cities as the world increasingly urbanizes. Ford, by buying Spin, is really just acting like a financial backer, helping the company spread more quickly.”
Ramsey said he could envision a future in which Ford serves as a holding company for these mobility providers, even while continuing to operate its core business of manufacturing big SUVs and trucks. “I’m not sure if any of these mobility services will ultimately be run as part of Ford’s core manufacturing business, but they may evolve into something wholly separate, run by a different part of the organization and Ford will become something more like an industrial or holding company that has multiple different businesses,” he said.
For Spin, it’s a huge validation for a relatively smaller scooter company to be bought up by one of the biggest automakers in the world. The founder, Euwyn Poon, was inspired to create a dockless bike company after visiting Bejing and seeing the growing interest in micromobility services in that city. Spin first launched in March 2017 in Seattle after working with the city to create a policy framework for regulating dockless bikes. Later, Spin pivoted to scooters, and today, the San Francisco-based company operates rentable e-scooters in nine cities and on five college campuses
But while Spin touts its efforts to work collaboratively with cities, it was famously one of the startups that was denied a permit in its hometown after launching there in 2017. Spin claims to have consulted with San Francisco’s transportation agency before depositing its scooters there last March. The scooter onslaught led the city to impose a temporary ban while it created a new permitting program, and in August, the city granted two permits to Scoot and Skip. Spin recently joined Uber’s Jump and Lime in appealing San Francisco’s permitting process.
Ford said part of the reason it decided to acquire Spin was because of the startup’s commitment to consult with cities first before deploying scooters. “A lot of companies are taking the Uber and Lyft approach of just launching and then dealing with cities afterwards,” said Sunny Madra, vice president of Ford X, the automaker’s skunkworks-style mobility incubator. “With Spin, what we saw was a more calculated approach of working with cities and going in with permits.”
Madra was the CEO of Autonomic, a Silicon Valley startup acquired by Ford in early 2018. Before that, Madra and COO Amar Varma co-founded Xtreme Labs, which built and designed mobile apps for its clients and sold to software consulting firm Pivotal in 2013. After the acquisition, Madra was put in charge of the newly created Ford X and put to work on the Transportation Mobility Cloud, an open-source platform for cities and other transportation partners that has been likened to Amazon Web Services for self-driving cars.
As a wholly owned subsidiary of Ford, Spin plans to “deploy quickly across hundreds of U.S. markets, including large metropolises and mid-sized cities,” Poon wrote in a blog post. “We’ll take a hyper-local approach to complementing existing transit infrastructure, ensuring we are serving the communities and neighborhoods who need micro-mobility the most. In the cities where we operate, we plan to help with enforcement around safety and parking, as well as provide rich data to inform urban planning and bolster sustainability initiatives.”
The supply chain for these electric scooters is immensely complex. Most of the dockless startups source their scooters from Chinese firms like Xiaomi and Segway-Ninebot. Madra said Ford could help bring its expertise in global suppliers and manufacturing to bear for Spin, but it stopped short of committing to building its own scooter. “Maybe taking some of our expertise and helping them find better suppliers,” he said.
What does seem clear is that Ford is eager to add Spin’s scooters to its still-in-development mobility cloud. Asked what that might look for consumers, Madra described a future where Ford owners type their destination into their vehicle’s cloud-enabled navigation systems, and in response, they get a tapestry of mobility options.
“You can drive to your destination, find parking, and it’s going to take X amount of time,” Madra said. “But here’s a different option that will account some of our additional mobility services, whether its a Chariot, or whether its a scooter, or whether its a GoBike. And it says, ‘Hey, you know what, if you get off here, there’s some scooters you can ride to your end destination and you can get there in a faster time.’ We think we can create an integration across those experiences.”