Ford (NYSE:F) reported first-quarter 2018 earnings that showed improving financial conditions for the automaker. Ford has lagged the rest of the industry the last couple of years, so it is putting emphasis on cutting costs and freshening its vehicle lineup. However, the company is also investing in the future of mobility and setting itself up for auto industry leadership in a world that is reimagining how to get around.

This article originally appeared in the Motley Fool.

Sharing -- an emerging megatrend?

In the U.S., there are more than 80 million millennials -- people who were born between the early 1980s and late 1990s -- making it the largest generation ever born in the country. And they're starting to have a big impact on the economy. Shaped by events like the global financial crisis of 2008 and the proliferation of technology in their childhood, they are making financial decisions that are causing many companies to rethink how they conduct business.

One emerging trend is the "sharing economy," a movement where many people are forgoing ownership of things in lieu of pay-as-you-go. If you have ever hitched a ride with Uber or booked a place to stay on Airbnb, you've taken part in this sharing economy. The internet has made it easier for owners of underutilized assets to share them, and for people looking for on-demand use to find and pay for them. Spreading the cost of assets across many users has effectively turned things like homes, clothing, and even time and money, into a service for hire.

Sharing isn't new in the transportation world: Taxis, rental cars, and shared transportation like buses and planes have been around for a long time. However, millennials are looking for increased flexibility and tech-savvy ways to get around. That could be a disruptive habit for auto manufacturers, since they rely heavily on steadily increasing vehicle sales. The car has a lot of competitive advantages versus other means of transportation, though, and technology is helping automakers find new ways to monetize their product.

What Ford is doing about it

Vehicle electrification gets a lot of attention, but the transportation of tomorrow is about a lot more than going green. Cars-as-a-service are on the rise, and Ford is helping lead the charge.

Ford also recently expanded its Mobility team, the division that oversees the above-listed subsidiaries by way of acquisition. Tech start-ups Autonomic and TransLoc -- both of which build technology solutions for transportation companies -- were recently purchased for undisclosed sums. The new businesses will be used to help Ford recognize new opportunities and provide support for its existing start-ups still in infancy.

Most of these technologies like ride sharing and autonomous vehicles are not unique to Ford. However, Ford says 2018 will be the year that many of its start-ups expand aggressively to stay ahead of other automakers. Ride-hailing service Chariot, for example, is supposed to expand to new cities this year. The Transportation Mobility Cloud is a true differentiator, though, expected to be offered for use outside of Ford later this year.

The idea behind Mobility Cloud is to link multiple sources of transportation data together to make getting around easier, safer, and cheaper. Access to the automakers' connected data could be offered as software-as-a-service (SaaS), giving Ford a true technology segment with recurring revenue via subscription fees. Ford is targeting transportation innovators and city planners with its new offering. Thus, if the data subscription launch is a success, Ford could be in a position to benefit no matter which direction transportation trends take us in the future.

FORD People visit the Ford stand during the press preview at the 2018 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit, Michigan, Jan. 16, 2018. Photo: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

What does all of this mean for shareholders? Ford doesn't provide Mobility division revenue, only losses. In the first quarter, the loss was $102 million, though total earnings before interest and tax were $1.7 billion. Mobility is thus a small consideration for owners of Ford stock at this point.

However, the company is making some radical changes to address shifting consumer taste, simplifying its legacy vehicle lineup  (no more sedans) and offering a hybrid version of every model vehicle by 2020. Management says that simplification will help it double down on its future and monetize the Mobility division in the years ahead -- with the Mobility Cloud at the heart of that plan.

With consumer preferences for transportation shifting, Ford is setting itself up to thrive in the sharing economy. The Mobility Cloud could be a real game changer, eventually transforming the company from pure auto manufacturer into a technology and data provider that initiates change rather than following the lead of others. The future of transportation is shaping up to be very competitive, but Ford's early push to support its technology initiatives helps its chances at remaining a relevant enterprise.

Nicholas Rossolillo's clients own shares of Ford. The Motley Fool recommends Ford. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.