Bill Ford is a man on a mission. He’s currently championing the idea of raising gas taxes, something that just a few years ago would have been unthinkable for a car company boss to say. But we live in changed times. Chrysler is in bankruptcy protection, with GM perhaps shortly to follow, but Ford's balance sheet isn’t entirely rosy either with a net loss of $1.4Bn in the last quarter, and sales off 30 percent. Scarier still, Porsche (most profitable car company in the world by reputation, trying to swallow – now merge with, VW) reportedly came close to bankruptcy for three days in March (schadenfreude anyone?).
So why does Bill Ford think these are exciting times to be in the auto industry? Because what he has talked about for years – big and scary stuff, namely change – is now happening. Bill (Ford) is the guy who set Ford (Motor Company) on the path towards a more sustainable future. Doing things like hiring 'eco architect' William McDonough to rebuild the Rouge site was the start. He oversaw the hiring of Alan Mulally as CEO – a man from outside the auto industry, who had overseen the most radical restructuring of an industry’s development process (Boeing) that had been seen for 50 years. And now, the assembled team at Ford are bringing you the all-conquering Fiesta, a Fusion hybrid which out hybrids the Japanese, a real Taurus and the next euro-Focus, which you just know is going to be top of its class. Ford has a line of products people want. What it’s done, doing and thinking about is strong enough to get hard-bitten journalists like Jean Jennings – editor-in-chief of Automobile Magazine – talking about the firm like this:
But more than that – signs are even there that Ford’s daring to stick its head up above the gun turret and have a think about scary future concepts like car sharing, high-speed rail and mega cities. To which we say: get on with it guys!
The mood of optimism in Dearborn is palpable, but Ford must be careful not to appear smug. It is likely to benefit from the current difficulties its neighbours from across town are experiencing. Spend some time online and you might have noticed the brand throwing its weight around too. Ford recently ranked first among automotive brands in terms of Internet buzz. That’s thanks to campaigns like Fiesta Movement; and people like Scott Monty – who you’ll find here, there and everywhere in the world of automotive social media; not to mention them letting some weird guys from the UK in to interview top Sustainability and Design brass.
The path ahead is fraught with pitfalls. Having supported auto bailouts until now, John Fleming – Ford of Europe’s chairman – became a dissenting voice last week, suggesting that nationalistic bailouts to Europe’s other car makers (think French) were putting the company’s European arm at a competitive disadvantage. What’s more, few are convinced Americans want small cars, and building hybrid and electric vehicles is hellishly expensive. Compounding this is that if gas stays sub $2/gallon, no one’s buying small, and no one’s buying eco – which could prove problematic. No wonder Bill wants increased gas taxes. And while Ford and Toyota pursue ‘top-up’ plug in hybrids and pure electric vehicles, the Chevy Volt might still prove to be the ideal third way. Ford has a five-powertrain future strategy, covering petrol, diesel, hybrid, plug-in and pure EV - which tries to cover all possible bases - but it’s going to be hugely expensive to develop all of them well, especially considering uber-stringent diesel emission regulations, and the fact that you need different cell chemistries for hybrids, plug-ins and pure ev batteries.
One ace up Ford’s sleeve? Electric delivery. We launched our project on this last week, because we think it’s one of the biggest ‘win’ areas in transportation today. While everyone gets hung up on moving people around, it’s goods logistics and delivery which presents arguably a bigger problem – and a greater opportunity - right now. Clearly someone at Ford has realised this, and the electric version of the Transit Connect delivery truck will be arriving shortly, and we’ll be following it every step of the way to launch and beyond.
Risky Ford’s path may be, but the auto industry’s going to hell in a hand-cart right now, so someone has to stick their neck out. Bill Ford appears to have got a taste for doing that, which is why he’s enjoying the ride. He clearly recognises the need for industry and regulators to work together, and understands the benefit in Ford sharing some of what it’s learnt so far (green roofed factories) and sharing risk in tomorrow's future strategies (city and electric power company partnerships). So 101 years after his great grandfather pretty much invented the auto industry, could Bill Ford re-emerge as ambassador and mouth piece for not only Ford - but the wider industry's future? Stranger things have happened.
Posted by Joseph Simpson on 26th May 2009
Images: Bill Ford: Ford media Others: Movement Design Bureau
Disclosure: Ford is sponsoring The Movement Design Bureau's design research work in 2009