In the ninth episode of the third series, Adam Shaw travels to Detroit to meet Executive Chairman of the Ford Motor Company, Bill Ford, to discuss his vision for mass mobility and the revolution that is needed to prevent global gridlock, or what some are calling, 'Carmageddon'.
As the world’s population increases and the number of people living in cities rises, it will become more difficult to move around our urban areas.
Bill Ford said: “We see global gridlock as an issue of human rights, not just one tied to business and economics. If I think of our mission at Ford, we started off making cars and then we became a car and truck company, but really we’re a mobility company. And if we think of ourselves as that, and I do, then that opens up lots of possibilities. If we do nothing today, that mobility will be severely compromised in the future.”
Here is the transcript of my interview with Bill Ford
AS: You talk a lot about global gridlock, can you just explain, it’s a good phrase, what does it mean in your view?
BF: Well if you just do the math, today we’ve got about 7 billion people on the planet, if you future to mid-century it’ll probably be around 9 billion people. And then if you also extrapolate out the number of cars and trucks that’ll exist in the world, today there are about a billion vehicles worldwide in operation, that number could grow up to 4 billion by mid-century. And I think that absent any other changes, just the sheer math when you start talking about that number of people and those many vehicles could create a massive global traffic jam the likes of which we’ve never seen.
AS: So you are literally talking about traffic jams around the world, transport stops moving.
BF: Well absolutely, because during the same time period there’s another phenomenon that will be happening if you believe the futurists, which is about 75% of the world, by mid-century, will be living in big cities. And so not only will we be adding more people to the planet, those people will be living primarily in big urban areas. And so the transport needs in those urban areas becomes very acute.
AS: And is that, in your view, going to be a problem of developed markets like North America or Europe, or is it the places China and Russia?
BF: Well both, I mean I think you already see it in developed markets to some extent. The traffic in most big cities in western Europe and the US is less than ideal, obviously some places it’s more acute than others. But as one travels today and goes to places like Sao Paulo or Shanghai and Beijing and Bangkok, it becomes pretty clear that already there are big traffic issues in those areas.
AS: And when you talk about gridlock it’s obviously an inconvenience to be stuck in traffic, we’ve all experienced that, but surely it’s more than that. What is actually compromised if we get to that situation?
BF: Well if you take it to its extreme it really ceases to move beyond just an annoyance and really becomes a human rights issue, because if you can’t deliver food and healthcare in a timely fashion around urban areas then you’ve got a real problem on your hands.
AS: And why is Ford particularly interested in that, it’s in your interest to make more cars.
BF: Well yeah but it’s really I think any company’s reason for existence is to make peoples’ lives better, and for the vast majority of our 100+ years of being as a company we’ve done just that. But really in my lifetime there was one major issue that arose when I was a young man, and I was acutely aware of it, and that was the environmental trade-offs that were starting to face our company and our industry. But I’m an optimist and I believe that in my lifetime we will solve those environmental issues. But even as we’re solving that issue, this other big issue is looming on the horizon, and frankly it hasn’t got a lot of attention. But again if our mission is to make people’s lives easier and better, then we need to get on with helping solve this issue.
AS: And is that a technological fix in your book?
BF: Largely it is, because we can’t do anything about that mathematics of more people and also people moving to cities, so if you start with those two things as a given; more people, bigger cities, then we start to attack the problem saying “okay, what are we going to do about that? Those are givens, how can we change that?” And I think it really will be the application of technology that will go a long way to alleviate a lot of this. But there also has to be a lot of city and urban planning going on at the same time, and a build out of various infrastructures that will help alleviate the problem.
AS: I understand technology’s only part of it, I get that, but how developed are we with these technological bits?
BF: Surprisingly developed, it’s really interesting, there’s sort of several levels of technology as one thinks about it. There is vehicle to vehicle communication, so it’s my car talking to all the other cars out there, in terms of real traffic conditions and safety conditions, weather conditions. And then there’s vehicle to infrastructure communication with all the sensors that are out there transmitting data. The cars will be talking to that infrastructure to help, again, bring order to that data so that the driver has much more real-time information. Then, a little bit further out, we and others are working on autonomous functions for the vehicle, all the way to fully autonomous driving. So I think that the level of technology that’s going into vehicles in the short-term is really quite impressive.
AS: And you say really there’s nothing much one can do to stop the planet growing, you’ve grown millions more people wanting cars, so if we’ve got to cope with that, is the answers that you’re providing, the technology and infrastructure, is that going to do it?
BF: Well I think there are going to be a lot of different solutions. The notion of private car ownership in major urban centres, we’re already seeing that model start to change with zip-car, we launched our own car-to-go program in Germany which is a car-sharing program. Others have done the same, and so I think you’re already starting to see different models start to emerge as people want to have access to transportation, but maybe not in the traditional sense of owning a vehicle or two, paying for parking which can be very expensive in big cities, and then only using their car a short amount of time. And so just in the last few years not only has things like Zip-Car and other similar models but we also have peer-to-peer sharing, so that if you actually own a car in a major city you can sign up for this service so that others may have access to your car and you get paid for it as you’re not driving it during the week, because you really only wanted it for the weekend. So I think we’re already starting to see interesting models start to emerge that really are not necessarily technologically based, but all are pieces of the puzzle going to help sort out this big issue called urban transportation.
AS: And if that’s the case, is there any evidence you can point to where it’s actually helping global gridlock?
BF: Yeah I mean I think the Zip-Car model certainly is an interesting one that already you’re starting, if you believe their numbers, and I’ve no reason to doubt them, they do talk in terms of taking a certain number of vehicles off the road, but yet providing more mobility to more people. And so, and then I think on the technology side too, we’ve got vehicles in our cars today that allow for closer driving…
AS: You said vehicles in our cars…
BF: I’m sorry, technology in our vehicles today which really allow for denser driving. We have assisted stopping in our cars, and a little bit further down the road we’ll have platooning capability which allow cars to be much more densely packed on the freeway. So yes the technology itself is coming in, at the same time these other models of ownership are taking place. And I think these are just very early-day efforts, I think you’ll see in 10-15 years’ time a lot of entrepreneurs developing lots of different solutions [against?] the space. And I guess my point is there won’t be one single solution, and one size won’t fit all, because every city starts with a different set of issues and a different set of infrastructure. So what works in London may not work in Mumbai.
AS: It seems to me that you’re hinting at a very different sort of philosophical approach to the car, because your great-grandfather I think invented a system here which celebrated the individual, the individual rights, it fits in with the American dream and all that. And you’re talking about a future where it’s much less about the individual, it’s much more shared.
BF: Actually I disagree completely, I actually think it’s very much an extension of his original vision, which was to provide mobility to the average person. And I guess my point is if we do nothing today, that mobility will be severely compromised in the future. However if we, because again we can’t do anything about the sheer math that’s going on; more people, urbanisation. So I look at it and say “what can we do to enhance the individual mobility for people living in those cities, and allow them the personal choice and the personal freedom to move about as they want?” And it may, and therefore the role of a car in that new world can and probably will change from its historical use but I really think of it as really rather than a restriction, a liberation. Liberation from horrible traffic jams, and a liberation to move about as one wants with great freedom, because if I think of our mission at Ford, we started off making cars and then we became a car and truck company, but really we’re a mobility company. And if we think of ourselves as that, and I do, then that opens up lots of possibilities.
AS: It’s interesting that you raise the mobility issue, what is the Ford or your blueprint for that mobility future?
BF: Well we actually have a blueprint of mobility, and it really is divided into short-term, medium-term and long-term, and obviously the world of technology is changing so quickly that as soon as we write it down it probably is obsolete.
AS: Give us a broad idea.
BF: Certainly. So we think about short-term, we’re putting in things like assisted parking, and we’re putting in things like assisted stopping in heavy traffic jams, and alerting the driver that you’re about to have a crash, and all those kinds of things. And then a little bit longer-term we really start getting into the vehicle to vehicle communication in a big way, and then perhaps a little longer, not much longer, vehicle to infrastructure communication. Ultimately all the way to autonomous driving and all the things that that will bring. But to try and put too fine a point on when each one of those will come, I think is kind of a fool’s errand at this point, because I think we always underestimate how quickly technology, and how entrepreneurial people are in applying solutions.
AS: You think change will happen faster?
BF: That’s my belief, and I think that, but then there’s a question of how we adapt to that change, and I don’t know how long that will take. For instance laws will have to change, people will have to get comfortable with handing over more control, gradually, to the vehicle. We introduced a vehicle last year called the Evos, which was a concept vehicle, but basically it’s connected to the cloud. And once you connect to cloud computing, then you kind of open up almost any possibility of things that can be done and the kind of information that can flow in and out of a car.
AS: Give me an example of what might happen.
BF: Well everything from completely connected driving to the world around you, to being able to check your blood sugar and your blood pressure as a driver, and tell you the level of allergens that are in your car. Almost anything to do with you personally or the environment around you, if you have access to the cloud, can be brought into the vehicle and sent out from the vehicle.
AS: So is it too much to say that you really are talking about a total rethink of personal transport?
BF: Absolutely, I mean of course we are, and I think it’s so exciting. I mean I think of the evolution of our industry, and if I look back to my great-grandfather’s first day at Ford Motor Company, there have been a series of evolutions but not many revolutions compared to other industries. I mean it’s interesting that the original Ford cars, and actually I have the oldest Ford car in existence, it’s pretty neat, yeah I’ll show it to you after this. But anyway it really was an internal combustion engine on four wheels, and obviously it’s had a series of evolutions over 100+ years. But now we stand I think at the, right at the brink of a series of revolutions all driven by technology, which to me is really exciting, and I actually think today is the most exciting time in my company.
AS: And we’ll talk a little bit more about that in a moment, but I want to just briefly move on to something I know you’re very keen on as talking about transport as an integrated network, so that cars are part of the picture but they work with busses and trains and metro systems. Do you think that integrated network in big cities like New York of London is actually achievable?
BF: It has to be, because I think the only way to optimise our transportation system is to have everything ultimately connected on to a single system. And then the individual living in those cities will have complete freedom of mobility, and freedom of choice in terms of how to get from point A to point B. Now I don’t underestimate the difficulty of that task, and as we sit here today it’s not ready for prime time. But there are already elements of that in existence, I mean Hong Kong has the octopus system which is a single ticketing system for multiple modes of transport.
AS: You can have it embedded in your watch now.
BF: Exactly. So it’s already, we’re already starting to see early iterations of that. But to be honest it needs to go through lots more development before we get there.
AS: And that just covers all of the brief questions, I wonder if we could go back and talk about some of the bigger issues. And listening to a lot of what you’ve talked about in the past, you’re very, I think genuinely very concerned about environments, it’s not just a green wash or anything, I do believe that’s what you feel. Do you think though, being the head of one of the biggest motor car companies in the world, and having that genuine environmental concern, these are mutually exclusive or they fight against each other, this conflicted person with two conflicting things that you want to do?
BF: Less today than ever before, and let me explain why. When I first joined Ford 30-some years ago I joined as somebody who was very concerned about the environment, in university I read Rachel Carson and Edward Abbey and all the environmental thinkers of the time. But to be part of an environmental movement for the early part of my working career, maybe even for most of it, was essentially a very negative proposition because all you could be was against something. There were very few solutions, and all you could do was to try and minimise the negative impact. And that wasn’t just true in our industry, that was true in society as well, and so if you were an environmentalist at large in society, typically you were a very frustrated and angry person because that’s all you could be. But as we sit here today, again technology to me is a great liberator because whether it’s electric vehicles or fuel cells two things have changed. One is the technology is now available to make us a clean industry, but also the mind-set is very different within our company, within our industry. I mean I spent most of my career fighting internal battles to get people to even become aware that this is not only an issue that we need to take seriously, but the fact that we should strive for leadership on. But today that’s all gone, there’s complete acceptance, in fact one of the pillars that we’re building our company going forward around is fuel economy and that’s what we want to be known for. So anyway, but my point is that I think that today it’s a much more hopeful and positive mind-set than ever existed.
AS: And we’re sitting by two examples, an electric car and a hybrid car which to some extent proves your point. But I was just listening to other things you’ve said, I was almost more interested in just what it felt like personally, not about the technology that Ford’s doing, and I was very struck by something I remember you saying once saying you were at college, chatting with your environmental buddies, they saw Ford as the enemy, you were actually the enemy. I just felt, for someone who feels like “I agree with you, I want to do these things”, but to be characterised as the enemy, what does that feel like?
BF: Well it was interesting, I think in my early days when I was told by our board of directors or certain members of our board, when I joined the board to stop associating with any known or suspected environmentalists…
AS: Sounds like terrorists.
BF: Exactly. They thought they were completely mad. And I said no, I have no intention of that in fact someone has to build bridges. But what was really interesting to me was not only was the reaction quite negative within Ford, but actually within the NGO community at the time, the environmental community, my reaching out was seen with a great deal of trepidation because, for two reasons. One was at the time there was a very clear delineation between companies and NGO groups, particularly environmental groups. And somehow my trying to build a bridge was seen as blurring the lines, and that many in the environmental community felt that they should never work with a company like Ford because it would be selling out. Also I think some of them saw me as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, that perhaps I was some sort of stocking horse trying to change the dialogue in some way. But fast-forward to today and that’s all changed, we work very closely with not only NGOs but also government agencies, all working on the same problems. So to me that’s been a great, it’s been very liberating. I do remember I spoke at the Greenpeace international conference, it was either ’99 or 2000 I don’t remember exactly the year but I don’t know who was more freaked out by it, people in Deerborn or people in the Greenpeace conference, because I think I was the first industrialist to ever attend that.
AS: I’m sorry to interrupt, and it’s fine if you don’t want to talk about this, but it just seems that I keep asking what it feels like, and it either feels like “well it doesn’t really, it doesn’t bother me”, which is interesting.
BF: No of course it’s bothered me, but when I went through many days and weeks and months and years of soul searching, saying “should I be doing this?” I mean there was part of me early in my career that wanted to leave and start my own NGO based upon environment, but I felt at the time and I feel today was the correct decision, that I could achieve more if I stayed and really tried to change things. But I will tell you, there was a lot of frustration along the way and a lot of anger along the way.
AS: And do you think therefore you really have made those changes, it’s your experiences outside the world of Ford that have changed this company?
BF: Well I wouldn’t be so arrogant to say that I personally changed everything, but I do think I’ve had an effect, and I do believe that my persistence on this issue has paid off, and that I no longer have to fight internal battles when we start talking about this.
AS: Swimming with the tide as opposed to against it.
BF: Yeah and that really feels good, I mean it really feels good.
AS: Another thing, I hate to keep quoting your great-grandfather and I’m sure everyone does this all the time, but I think one of the things he was saying was if you ask people what they wanted it wasn’t cars, it would be a faster horse.
AS: But it does seem to me that the industry as a whole, in particular the industry as a whole is just trying to create faster horses in a way, better cars. We’ll stay with the car, we’ll just make it better. Make it electric, make it hybrid, make it talk to each other, but it’s still a car, when actually a lot of what you seem to be implying is what we need to do is actually move away from this thing, this box, and do something completely different.
BF: Well I think, I don’t know that that’s really true. I think we can make this vehicle as we know it today a very different kind of entity in the future, one that is connected and connects you and your entire, everything you care about to the world around you.
AS: Make it better, but you’ve still got, you say you’ve got billions more people coming, they all want cars, cars are great things to have. So surely we should say “don’t get a car” because there’s a limit to how many cars we can have in this world.
BF: Well there will be a limit, and I think that when we reach those limits and before we reach those limits the role of the car will continue to change, and also what a car looks like will begin…I suspect in the future, and I’ve no idea what I’m about to say, don’t ask me what it’s going to look like because I have no idea, but I suspect in the future the car as we know it may look very very different, certainly will act very different than today. And really if you think of the existing infrastructure that we have; city streets, highways, we have to be able to utilise those in some way because they’re a very important part of the transportation fabric, not only of countries but of individual cities. The question then is how do we optimise that? And public transport is very important, and I’m very pro-public transport, but it moves people typically in a very linear fashion and people move in a messier fashion than that. So we need to help envision a way that people can continue to move in messy fashion and get them from point A to point B.
AS: And clearly you don’t know, but is your vision, if we go in 50 years’ time, 100 years’ time, that we’d still be talking about something recognisable as a car, as the oldest Ford in the world is recognisably a car as is one of the most modern ones. Or would we be looking at something, wow what is that thing?
BF: Boy I have no idea.
AS: But it’s using the same infrastructure, it’s roads, it’s some sort of box in which we sit, it’s just cleverer, smarter, more environmentally friendly.
BF: Yeah, which is about to park itself, much denser parking. It finds its parking spot the minute you turn it on, it knows where you’re going, it reserves you a spot, it takes you to that spot, it parks itself. Maybe in that timeframe you actually call your car and it comes and gets you. So there’s lots of different permutations that this could take in that time frame. One of the things that, and this won’t surprise you perhaps, but I’ve been approached by entrepreneurs who want to build flying cars, but to me adding a third dimension to transportation becomes really problematic, and we’re not ready for that. Can those cars be built? Yes and I’ve seen models that work, but then you start thinking about the practical restrictions, in this country, in fact in most of the developed world you need to have a pilot’s license, you need to take off and land at airports. Pretty soon the utility of something like that. But nonetheless in that time frame will those kind of discussions be going on? Probably.
AS: I think a year or two ago I remember you saying “we need to make change and we need to make it now.” If that change does not happen, what sort of future do we face?
BF: Well I mean I think it’s pretty evident what we face if we don’t make changes, and that’s why we are making changes. And so if we did nothing and we just continued to roll out vehicles of today’s size and just try to sell ever more of them into a crowded urban environment, I think there would be a tremendous backlash somewhere along the line where city planners and city residents just say “this is too difficult, enough.” You’re already seeing that today with restrictions on many city centres in terms of vehicle usage, whether it’s odd-even license plates or whether it’s a big fee to come in
to a city, I mean it takes different forms. So, and that’s why we are working very hard on lots of new technology which will help alleviate those issues.
AS: It does seem to me that you say you genuinely believe but you say that we can have everything, that we can have nice modern transport, and technology and new ways of thinking will get us out of this problem, we can have our cake and eat it.
BF: Well that has to be the goal.
AS: It doesn’t have to be the goal, you could say “it’s not right, it’s too luxurious to have your own personal transportation, we can’t waste resources”, it doesn’t have to be like that.
BF: Well but I’m not saying everybody has to own their own vehicle in an urban centre, I mean we’ve already talked about the various models of, you can have access to a vehicle without owning the vehicle. And so I guess my whole point is that will change in the future, and the notion that we have today’s ownership model in a city centre as we go forward probably doesn’t work. And so I’m really not suggesting that we take today’s status quo and imprint it on the future, in fact what I’m really was saying was we know the future’s going to be different, and how can we anticipate and actually make that future an easy one.
AS: Do you think there needs to be a sort of crisis, like an oil shock in the ‘70s to galvanise efforts in governments and countries.
BF: I hope not.
AS: Do you think advances already going on are taking us down there?
BF: Well clearly they’re taking us down that road, and a question becomes is the pace of innovation quick enough?
AS: Your answer to that?
BF: I believe it is, I believe it’s really coming on fast, and what’s interesting too is we at Ford are dealing with a lot of non-traditional suppliers now, who really are experts in this new world. I mean we’re dealing with Microsoft, we’re dealing with Google, we’re dealing with entrepreneurs who are starting up really innovative companies in this mobility space. We’re dealing with big data crunchers. All the brain power that’s out there in the world, that are now turning their attention to this mobility space. And I think it’s a great thing, and I think because of that the rate of change will continue to accelerate.
AS: You’re not just a commentator, you’re a mover and shaker in this industry and this world. What is your message then to policy makers and other people in this industry about moving mobility down the path you think we should go.
BF: Well you know I would actually have several messages to policy makers, and if I can start with the environmental issue and then move to the mobility issue. On the environmental issue, we sit here with a pure electric vehicle and a plug-in electric vehicle and yet one of the limiting factors is the infrastructure hasn’t been built out on plug-in, and that we really need as a society, and I don’t mean as an American society really as a global society, we need energy policies in countries that will enable the build-out of the infrastructure so that we can actually have mass adoption of pure electric vehicles and plug-in, hybrids. So that’s one issue that I think is a bit more short-term. It’s interesting, for many years we used to have conversations with NGOs and governments, and the supposition was always that we, the autos would be the laggard in providing the hardware. Well here we are with the hardware, and they’re wonderful vehicles and battery technology will just continue to get better and better, but until we have ubiquity of plug-in we’re going to have, we’re going to face an uphill battle in terms of mass acceptance. So that’s really one issue I believe that we need to address across the globe. But the other issue in terms of mobility is that we need to work together, because just as we saw in this case with the electric vehicles, we can do our part but if others aren’t doing it as well we’re not going to get the right outcome. So we really need to begin working with universities, governments, other industry consortiums and technology providers to envision this future and make it work. And it becomes, I think, more difficult because one size won’t fit all. Each city will have its own unique challenges and its own unique assets that they already have. And how does each city then optimise what they have and what their limitations are? And that I think becomes, therefore it’s going to be a big issue. Some of the elements will be common and can be easily adopted, but others will have to be customised for each city.
AS: Wonderful thank you.
BF: Thank you.
AS: Is there anything else that you wanted to say that I didn’t cover?
BF: No I thought that was great
AS: So a lot of our personal electronics have revolutionised our smart phones and everything, for a long time cars haven’t done that. We are on the cusp of a change here aren’t we, that they’re becoming much more intelligent.
BF: Well they are, I mean the amount of information that today, even today, flows out of a car and into a car is quite a lot. But that’s going to change exponentially very very soon, and as we start to really ramp up the vehicle to vehicle communication and vehicle to infrastructure communication, and ultimately bringing the cloud computing into the vehicle. And so you’re really going to have a seamless transition from your office and your home to your car back to your home again. I think the issue though that we struggle with, and I suspect others in the industry struggles with is how do we put that in a presentable form that doesn’t distract the driver? Because really I think the issue isn’t going to be how can we bring more information in, the issue’s going to be how can we do it in a way that really enhances the safety of the driving experience. So it’s, if one thinks about bringing in technology into the vehicle, that’s the easy part, and that will happen. But I think the harder part, and the one that we’re going to continually be refining as we go forward, is how do we do it in a way that really enhances the driving experience rather than distracts.
AS: And we’ve done this but let’s just make sure we get it. The global gridlock, whether you coined this phrase…
BF: I think I did.
AS: Right so if you coined it…so since you invented it, the dictionary definition of global gridlock is…
BF: Well I think we saw the, if you take a picture of it rather than write the words, back in China a few years ago when we had the 11 day traffic jam, and for as far as you could see nothing moved. Now that’s an extreme, but frankly if one extrapolates that into the future that could become more and more and more of an occurrence, and that’s what we have to prevent.
AS: In all of this you’re very optimistic. It’s not just a front because we’re on telly, are you honestly genuinely telling me you really are optimistic about this?
BF: I am optimistic because I see the kind of brain power that’s now being applied to this issue. It’s not just companies like Ford, it’s big technology companies that are coming at it, it’s telecommunication companies that are coming at it. And importantly, a lot of start-up activity, a lot of the best entrepreneurs are now starting to innovate in the mobility space. And to me that is very very hopeful because as a species we’re incredibly, we have a lot of ingenuity when we apply ourselves. And I think what’s happened in the past was a lot of that ingenuity was happening away from the auto world, and now though, I mean we have a silicon valley office, we work very closely with the top universities all around the world. And we are working now with the best and the brightest, whether they’re the best and the brightest corporations, universities or entrepreneurs. So yeah that makes me very optimistic.
AS: Clearly as the boss of a car company I feel even if you believed it you wouldn’t say it, but you don’t think the car is the problem, we shouldn’t just get rid of the car, you’re not saying “I wish I could just say get rid of the car but clearly I can’t say that because I run a car company”, the car isn’t the problem?
BF: I think people certainly don’t want to take a step back in terms of individual mobility, and people really prize that, and you see it even in cities which have great public transportation, you typically also have relatively high personal car ownership in those cities as well. So I believe that the car itself can and should and will evolve in a very dramatic fashion from where it is today, to enable personal mobility in an ever more crowded world.
AS: Can I just have one more. What is going to be the connection with public transport and our own personal mobility, because it’s all about talking to each other isn’t it in the future. Because we’ve done a sequence in China which links into central hubs linking planes, trains and automobiles.
AS: Public transport and mobility, so what’s the connection between public transport and mobility?
BF: Well ultimately it will be that they all have to be on the same network, and that has to be the goal so that public transport and all forms of personal mobility, whether it’s bicycles or segways or cars or motorbikes or even pedestrians are all in a single network, because when we do that then you really optimise the entire network, and you’re not just having different pieces trying to force fit them together. So I think that really is where this is all headed, and has to be headed.