Ford (NYSE:F) has been unveiling some radical changes in the last year -- at least as far as traditional automakers go. The company is revamping its lineup, including eliminating nearly all car models in lieu of crossovers and SUVs; a goal has been set of having at least a hybrid-electric option on every vehicle by 2022, including its bread-and-butter F-Series trucks and the Mustang; and a slew of acquisitions have been made to capitalize on new modes of transportation such as ride-sharing and electric bike and scooter start-ups.
Along with other automakers, Ford has also been hard at work at making vehicles smarter, safer, and maybe even fully autonomous. To that end, management made a first-of-its-kind announcement in early January: cellular vehicle-to-everything (dubbed "C-V2X" for short) devices embedded in every production vehicle it makes.
What is C-V2X?
Ford says it already has over 700,000 connected vehicles (which have the ability to tap into a wireless network) on the road, and by next year, every new car it manufactures will have the same capability. However, Ford also wants all of its vehicles to be able to talk directly to other vehicles, pedestrians, and infrastructure like city cameras and traffic lights. Built on the same technology as new 5G mobile networks are, management said at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show that C-V2X hardware should be in every vehicle it makes by 2022.
To test the viability of its C-V2X ambitions -- which complements its work on making vehicles capable of driving themselves -- Ford signed an agreement with chip-maker Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM). With cars better able to communicate and sense their surrounding environment with or without a cellular network connection, it could make everything about transportation a safer and more efficient experience.
Hey Ford, I'm not into the self-driving car idea
If leaving your vehicle and your local smart city in charge of the commute sounds too utopian (or dystopian) for your taste, that's OK. Ford thinks C-V2X will benefit human drivers as well. The company described the communication enabled by its vision as a "tap on the shoulder" from the driver's car, other cars, devices carried by bikers and pedestrians, and infrastructure itself. The "tap" would essentially come in the form of a warning about possible wrecks, road obstructions, and other unseen developments in the area. Think of future vehicles and their surroundings as an interconnected web of communication working together to make the roads a safer place.
Though Ford's ambitious plan sounds good, nearly every automaker out there has a similar plan for increasing vehicle safety and "connectedness" to the rest of the world. The automaker's 5G network-based angle is a first, but it isn't too far off from what the competition is working on.
And that makes sense. Just as Bluetooth technology, backup cameras, and tech-enabled infotainment systems are ubiquitous in new cars today, new connectivity tech will also soon be the norm in all vehicle makes. Really, Ford's 5G deal is a race to stay ahead of the pack more than a cutting-edge breakthrough. I still believe Ford stock is currently a good value, but not because of C-V2X.
So, who wins the most? The answer lies in the partnership itself. Ford is working with Qualcomm to vet the plan. Other chip makers that enable connectivity and related auto industry parts could be big winners -- both from the manufacture of the vehicles with the embedded tech themselves, but also in the further proliferation of other connected devices. Skyworks Solutions (NASDAQ:SWKS), which made a name for itself in designing connectivity chips for smartphones, comes to mind. Skyworks has been slowly growing its sales outside of the phone market to include automakers and has a portfolio of 5G-enabled infrastructure hardware ready to deploy.
Though the idea is to make C-V2X work even without a wireless connection, mobile carriers like Verizon (NYSE:VZ) could also have a lot to gain from the smart vehicle movement. Verizon was the first to launch a commercial 5G service, which could tee the company up for a battle with traditional internet service providers. Mobile 5G -- the first iterations of which are forthcoming this year -- could help mobile carriers become more than just phone companies. Telecom could transform into the backbone of all types of communications, facilitating conversations between phones, cars, cameras, buildings, and other equipment. With the number of connections utilizing its network the baseline for business performance, getting Ford and other automakers to make use of it could be a strong tailwind in the not-so-distant future.
Ford and its race with its peers to adopt C-V2X is an exciting development to watch in the years ahead; the technology could transform how we get around forever. While there are opportunities for automakers to jostle into a competitive advantage by utilizing the movement, investors who want to benefit the most should look at the companies enabling it in the first place: chip makers and mobile network providers.
Check out the latest Ford earnings call transcript.