Ford to buy scooter-sharing company Spin to beef up mobility business

Key Points
  • Ford is buying scooter-sharing company Spin.
  • The automaker is making the move to diversify in the face of threats to traditional car ownership.
A person displays the SpinBike shared electric scooter application on a Apple Inc. iPhone X in San Francisco, California, on Friday, April 13, 2018. 
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Ford confirmed Thursday it has agreed to buy scooter-sharing company Spin.

The deal was initially reported by Axios, which put its value at about $40 million. A person familiar with the deal later told CNBC that its value was closer to $100 million.

The move is a bid to beef up Ford's holdings in transportation and "mobility" businesses that don't involve selling cars, and to tap what executives say is a rapidly growing market.

Several scooter start-ups, such as Bird and Lime, have risen to prominence recently, and some see these companies as yet another form of transportation, along with ride hailing, that could undermine the need many households have for a garage filled with cars.

San Francisco-based Spin rents out "dockless" scooters, meaning users do not have to park them in designated areas or "docks," as is commonly seen with similar sorts of services, such as bike-share programs. It operates in 13 cities and college campuses, including Denver, Detroit, Long Beach, California; Coral Gables, Florida and Troy University in Alabama. It also has bike-share programs at the University of Kentucky and the University of California, San Diego.

By the end of 2018, Spin plans to operate in Washington, D.C.; Austin, Texas; Charlotte, North Carolina; Durham, North Carolina, as well as nearby Duke University; and Towson University in Maryland.

Ford has made a number of investments in mobility companies through its Smart Mobility division. In early 2018, the automaker bought Autonomic, a company that makes software meant to connect vehicles and organize transportation networks. When Autonomic CEO Sunny Madra joined Smart Mobility, he was named the head of Ford X, an incubator designed to help grow new businesses that can target customers who may be losing interest in traditional car ownership.

Micro-mobility businesses like Spin are growing in a much different way than ride-sharing did, according to Madra. Cities are requiring permits and putting caps on the number of scooters a company can put in an area and where they can be placed.

Madra told CNBC that Ford chose to acquire Spin because the company works fit Ford's values. "They always launch in markets where they have permits, they work very closely with cities to understand what their needs are," he said.

Ford wants to expand Spin's business to about 100 places within 18 months.

"We are really going to give them significant resources to help them scale," Madra said, adding that the Spin will be able to leverage relationships Ford already has with different cities.

The potential market is large. Madra cited data from transportation research firm Populus, which found that half of all trips in the U.S. are 3 miles or less.

"Some of the leading companies in this space were getting upwards of 10 million rides in less than a year," Madra said. "And if you compare that to the most disruptive transportation company in the last 10 years, being Uber, it took them three years to get to get the same level of usage. So it became obvious there was consumer desire in this space."

Understanding how to scale a business like this will be key.

"That is an important fact because as we grow out our range of mobility offerings, we think autonomous vehicles are going to undergo the same sort of scrutiny that the scooters are in that sense," he said. "Companies will need to get permits, and there will be caps, and companies will need to operate in very distinct ways."

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