Like a prized suburban garden, Ford is cleaning up in the neat-and-tidy-American-car-company stakes. Joe Simpson pushes past the perimeter and asks, is it enough?
Last week, 100 ‘agents’ pulled the covers off the 2011 Ford Fiesta at the LA auto show in the climax of the six month-long “Fiesta Movement”. Just a couple of weeks before, Automobile magazine named Ford’s CEO, Alan Mulally, their man of the year, which must be all the sweeter for Dearborn considering GM promptly lost its second CEO in eight months.
Yet there’s another way of looking at where Ford currently stands, a viewpoint that throws away the rose-tinted spectacles. Ford is lauded in America because it has avoided the traps fallen into by Chrysler and GM. But is that enough to define success? As someone who has just spent the last year looking at Ford’s approach to sustainability, I should be well placed to do that.
One year ago, the company quietly opened its doors to us, two British researchers armed with video cameras, and said “go in, ask questions and poke a camera where cameras haven’t been poked before, let people see how Ford is changing”. They had no control over what we said - a potential PR rep's nightmare. Yet it was just one part of Ford’s strategy to communicate more openly, and be more social. Crucially, it also wanted to show the world it was going green – Ford was changing.
So what’s changed? Last December, we found a company reeling from the fallout of the auto bailout debacle. Auto CEOs were just one rung down from bankers in the evil stakes, and many commentators had wrongly lumped Ford into the same boat as GM and Chrysler, saying it needed bailout money to survive. It didn’t, and wanted to let the world know, so then newly appointed head of social media, Scott Monty, spent the next few months contacting and correcting every blogger, analyst and media commentator on Ford’s position.
Come January’s Detroit Auto Show, the wind was changing direction. The Lincoln C concept proved Ford was in touch. A downsized, premium vehicle for Ford’s limping upmarket brand, based on a Focus platform, felt very of the time. More importantly, Ford’s self-titled “electrification” program got underway in the form of a Magna-built Focus Battery Electric Vehicle, and a commitment to build two electric vehicles (EVs), more hybrids and plug-in hybrids by 2012.
Ramming home the point about Ford’s seriousness was an actual car – one available to buy right now. The Fusion Hybrid could not only run fully electric up to 47mph, but it bested the Camry Hybrid’s EPA figures and wowed critics at how ‘right’ Ford had got the powertrain. It also featured a driver interface that in a nutshell encapsulated what the new Ford was about. Developed using ethnographic research techniques, in conjunction with Ideo and Smart Design, ‘Smartgauge’ was a reconfigurable, four-level coaching interface which helped drivers to ‘learn’ their Fusion Hybrid, ‘grow’ with it and become more efficient drivers over time. Developed by engineer Jeff Greenberg and his team using simulators in Ford's incredible ‘Virtex’ lab on its Dearborn campus, when we got to drive it, we thought it was proof Ford was truly going places on the eco front.
Yet it’s a sign of how fast things are moving in the green car world, that today we no longer feel Ford is level pegging with the front runners. We know Ford possesses some world-beating engineers, who are developing things entirely cogent with what other car companies are doing, yet the company’s strategy feels conservative and the message isn’t clear.
In September, at Frankfurt, John Flemming pulled the covers off a euro-spec electric Focus and announced a trial fleet of 10 cars for the UK. Sadly, no one noticed because in the very next press conference, Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn stood up, said that the auto industry had until now been merely tinkering around the edges, pulled the covers off four Renault EVs which will all be on sale by 2012, and effectively bet Renault's future on electric cars. Meanwhile, BMW's quietly built 600 Mini Es already, GM’s letting anyone with two legs drive a prototype Volt, and come last week in LA, VW showcased not just another Up! variant – but one that will do 96mpg. What did Ford do? Launched a car we’ve been able to buy in Europe for 18 months…
Ford's strong corporate culture has shielded it from accepting reality. I sense that within the corridors of power in Dearborn, there’s a frustration and lack of understanding as to why people don’t see Ford as green, and why there doesn’t seem to be the same level of interest and excitement in Ford’s electric cars as there is in – for instance - GM’s Volt.
But having watched Ford and the wider industry through this period, it’s clear to me that one reason for this is that Ford’s proposed ‘clean’ vehicles don’t have the same design-led, risky, visionary, ‘exciting story’ elements to them as the current crop from GM, Renault or BMW. The electric Focus and Transit Connect simply look like regular Focuses and Transits. Compare that with BMW's Vision Efficient Dynamics, which is a design and materials–led radicalization of a future coupe. Or Renault’s Twizy – a small car/scooter cross which feels ideal for the world’s growing number of mega cities.
Indeed Ford's green future looks more conservative than GM’s Volt – which while nearly three years old, is a fundamentally different car to anything GM has produced before, and one which – thanks to the company's ‘troubles’ – has a bet-the-company, edge of the seat, ‘will they won’t they manage to make it’ PR story wrapped around it, which has the world gripped.
Don’t scare the neighbors
Part of the problem could be J Mays, Ford's global design chief. Asserting to me this summer that "I have this crazy notion that an electric car should look like, shock horror, a car" Mays' view that electric cars shouldn’t look weirdly different might be a major weakness. Of course, in times of economic uncertainty, and when consumer acceptance of cars with radical new powertrains is far from assured, this may turn out to be a safe and sensible approach.
Yet it is just that - safe. And I can’t help but say that if Ford really wants to go green, and have people believe it is green, then it has to stick out its neck. It needs a halo, a vision – a car and a story – that grips, wows and inspires people. Because I suggest to you that in the next five years, there will be more change and upheaval in the automotive world than there was in the past 100. And that those who dare most boldly, will be rewarded most handsomely – with long term profit.
There’s a strong sense of history and tradition at Ford. In recent times, that tradition – the Ford family tradition specifically – has provided the firm with a backbone to cope with the horror scenario that has engulfed the US car industry, leaving it as the only one of the big three not in bankruptcy. But that strength could stifle the company, too. Dearborn, Ford’s home, resembles a suburban estate, with still carefully trimmed gardens and a freshly painted fences. But beyond are derelict lots and empty streets.
Now ought to be Ford's moment to be truly inspired by its past. To look back to the man who started - and risked - it all, Henry Ford. Because Ford needs its Model T for the 21st Century. And it needs to remember what the great man said: “If I’d have asked people what they want, they’d have said faster horses”.
Joseph Simpson is a researcher at The Movement Design Bureau, a think tank.
Posted on the 7th December 2009. Full disclosure: Ford has sponsored The Movement Design Bureau's research in 2009.