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Ford, Newlab Create Startup Cohort for EV Fleet Innovations

Five startups were selected to develop pilot projects to help speed the adoption and deployment of electric vehicle fleets. The project, known as the Mobility Studio, is a partnership between Ford Motor Co. and Newlab.

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Technologies to smooth the transition to electric vehicles in fleet operations are being developed in the latest cohort of companies to come together under the Ford and Newlab partnership umbrella.

The partnership established the Mobility Studio in Detroit and will serve five startups developing technologies and business practices to serve the emerging trend toward electrifying fleets of vehicles. The companies will explore some of the more nagging obstacles encountered by fleets in areas like vehicle charging, operational designs and even next-gen technologies like vehicle-to-grid connections, which uses EVs to aid in the management of the electric grid.

“We started with this emphasis on, what is it going to take for commercial fleets across this country to confidently electrify,” said Shaina Horowitz, vice president of product and programs at Newlab, explaining the general thesis behind the launch of the Mobility Studio and the cohort of companies that it will include.

The project is also an effort by Ford to explore technologies in auto electrification as it transitions away from internal combustion engines to electric motors. Forty percent of Ford’s global volume is expected to be all-electric by 2030, and the company aims to be a fully zero-emission auto company by 2040, said Cynthia Williams, global director for sustainability, homologation and compliance at Ford Motor Company, speaking at the recent Veloz summit.

“We firmly believe that commitment and sustainability and electrification goals are essential to making and accelerating the product towards a zero-emission future,” said Williams.

The five companies selected for the Mobility Studio project include: Autofleet, EVPassport, Fermata Energy, Rhombus Energy Solutions and SparkCharge. The companies will receive what Horowitz described as “holistic support,” in the planning, design and deployment of the pilot projects.

“So we’ve been working hard to connect these companies to fleets, customers and end users and drivers that are really going to validate and troubleshoot and provide valuable feedback,” she added.

They will also have access to grants from a pool of up to $200,000 to help offset expenses. However, the bulk of the support stems from being part of Newlab member communities, which means having access to 200 other companies to function as peers in the transportation innovation space.

The companies also have access to prototyping labs, office space in New York and Detroit, and access to Newlab’s investor network. The Mobility Studio will be located at Michigan Central, a historic former train station Ford is restoring and redeveloping as part of an innovation district in Detroit.

Ford brings expertise and “the promise of partnership if these projects prove to be relevant and fruitful for the topics that they’re strategically working toward,” said Horowitz.

More than 75 applications were received for participation in the cohort, and the selection process looked at the “technical merit” behind the company, and how far along the technology has progressed, Horowitz explained.

“Is there something unique or distinct about the way this company is trying to approach the problem,” she added. But also, “is this really the team that is going to be able to take this concept into the world, into the market.”

This level of research and product development comes as energy and enthusiasm around EVs continues to build, and the vehicles are pegged for a number of use cases by both the public and private sectors. However, issues related to charging are also of high concern among both conventional consumers and operators of fleet vehicles.

Transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft depend on their drivers supplying the car — and in the case of EVs — charging them. This becomes a more complicated scenario when the driver does not have access to a personal garage where the car can be safely and conveniently charged every night.

This is what Horowitz described as “the other side of the equation related to infrastructure upgrades, to new types of services, and really an emphasis on how are we going to create the experience that allows fleet drivers to embrace EVs, and still maintain their business and their way of operating.”

Meanwhile, companies like Fermata Energy and Rhombus Energy Solutions are exploring concepts like bidirectional charging and other technologies that place energy back onto the electric grid when it’s most needed. Vehicle to grid (V2G), as it’s known, is seen as technology with a lot of potential to help manage the grid more effectively as demands from electric vehicles increase.

“It’s also how can we start to think about vehicles being part of the bigger resiliency picture, and climate combating picture for the U.S.,” said Horowitz.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.