Bill Ford: Prepare for Auto Industry Transformation
While attending the Further with Ford conference at the company’s headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, earlier this week, the automaker’s old-fashioned script logo at the entrance to the building caught my eye. Probably because I’d watched several episodes of HBO’s Silicon Valley on the plane ride to Detroit; its opening title sequence features tech company logos vying for attention. At Ford, its old-school insignia seemed out of step with its ambitions to remake itself as a mobility company rivaling the likes of Uber, Google, and others.
Technology has certainly created Kodak moments for many long-established and iconic companies, and some predict the same thing will occur in the auto industry. While Ford isn’t the only car company making this transition into mobility, it has been one of the most aggressive. It plans, for example, to build and deploy fully self-driving vehicles for an autonomous ride-sharing service in five years; check out a hands on with Ford’s latest self-driving car from our sister site ExtremeTech. Last week, it also acquired van-pool service Chariot and announced plans to expand bike-sharing in the Bay Area.
Those plans all run counter to selling more cars and trucks to people. In fact, Ford recently lowered its profit forecast for 2017 due to investment in mobility and other forward-leaning technologies.
Unusually Candid Executives
The Further with Ford event featured a parade of company executives in a carefully choreographed series of discussions and presentations. But at the same time, I found the company’s kingpins, and particularly executive chairman and company scion Bill Ford, unusually candid about the opportunities and challenges the automaker faces in moving from selling vehicles to marketing mobility.
In an opening session, CEO Mark Fields suggested that vehicle miles traveled will be more important than number of vehicle sold. Product chief Raj Nair noted that Ford is intentionally disrupting its century-old business model of vehicle sales since the change is inevitable.
But few things provoke a stronger reaction from auto industry veterans than the idea that car companies are dinosaurs that will be eventually usurped by Silicon Valley. In an onstage interview, Bill Ford, the great-grandson of the company’s founder, acknowledged that “it’s not just Google and Apple, but it’s start-ups of people spinning out of Google and Apple” with which Ford will have to compete.
He also conceded that this “means we have to be open to partnerships…in a way that an insular industry in an insular town hasn’t traditionally been, and that’s why we’re building up our Silicon Valley presence.”
Ford said he’s heard from Valley wags over the past few years that automakers will “end up being handset makers” and “low-margin assemblers of other people’s cool technology.” But he added “that the conversation has really shifted to a realization that we bring a lot knowledge of integrating technology into a vehicle in a way that they don’t have any experience with. And to build a vehicle with quality is something that’s a lot harder to do than people had thought.”
That’s something that Google has learned as it faces defections of key personnel on its self-driving team; Apple’s autonomous vehicles efforts have apparently also [hit a roadblock. “Tech companies have discovered that that we bring a lot more strength than they thought even a year or two years ago,” Bill Ford noted.
But despite its embrace of Silicon Valley, Bill Ford insisted there are no plans to change the name “Ford Motor Company” to something more modern. “Hell, no,” he said succintly when asked by a conference attendee. I’m sure the same goes for its old-fashioned logo, even if it will never make the title sequence of Silicon Valley.