Sunday 17 December 2017

Great-grandson who's driving a high-tech vision for Henry Ford's automobile empire

Bill Ford, a man proud of his family's Irish roots, isn't your typical car mogul - a committed environmentalist, he's on a mission to radically transform the motoring map to benefit future generations. Our technology editor meets him in Dublin

Ford Motor Company executive chairman Bill Ford indulges his passion for hurling at Croke Park. Photo: Steve Humphreys.
Ford Motor Company executive chairman Bill Ford indulges his passion for hurling at Croke Park. Photo: Steve Humphreys.
Henry Ford with an early car.
The former Ford production line in Cork.
Bill Ford, a man proud of his family's Irish roots, pictured with Adrian Weckler. Photo: Steve Humphreys.
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Bill Ford says that he is "fascinated" by hurling. The great-grandson of Henry Ford, and now chairman of the global car manufacturer, still doesn't get the rules. But he can't get enough of Irish sport. "The last time I was in Ireland I went to a Shamrock Rovers game," he said. "I was seriously rooting for Ireland during the recent World Cup, too. I love this place."

Ford's attachment to the country - his great, great grandfather left in the 1800s - is a sentimental one. But this week, it was joined by business considerations. Like 42,000 others, Ford flew in to the Web Summit to talk about how his company is fusing a traditional industry with cutting edge technology.

While his schedule started with Ford's own 'hackathon' - a competition where software developers from around the world were vying for a $75,000 cash prize based on coding the best automotive app - at Croke Park, the 58-year-old Detroit native has wider issues he wants to bring to the fore.

"We're redefining ourselves as a mobility company," says Ford. "We're entering new territory. I gave a Ted talk four years ago where I discussed these ideas around mobility. One of the things that is striking is that, when you factor in population growth, our mobility and transport model today just won't work in years to come."

In other words, there are more and more people with more and more cars in urban areas. As a consequence, traffic is running to a standstill. "We're having to think about new solutions to problems," he says. "For example, 30pc of the fuel we use today goes on finding parking spaces. That's just crazy."

But what can Ford do about this? After all, it makes cars. How can it contribute to solving an endemic problem like traffic?

"You have to look at this from the standpoint of a business model in an urban area," he says. "Cutting-edge software can impact and change the world. So rather than simply throw our hands up at global gridlock, we have to be proactive in the solutions to make." To this end, Ford is doubling down on investment in in-car apps, voice control and intelligent systems. Ford himself is comfortable in this space.

"Eight years ago, I started my own venture capital firm to address the mobility space and, at the time, was the only one doing that. We invested in young companies in that space. Today, that space is quite crowded."

Ford is being modest here. One of his investments is Lyft, the arch-rival to Uber that is changing the way Americans get taxis. On the face of it, such an investment by the chairman of Ford might not make complete sense: the mission of firms like Lyft and Uber is to rub out personal car ownership in favour of expanded urban fleets of semi-professional drivers.

In answer, Ford says that his great grandfather Henry stood for mobility rather than technical car ownership. "I think if we take a step back and really ask what the mission of our company [Ford] is, it's actually to make people's lives better," he says. "It's solving problems."

Solving problems is a big personal theme for Ford. An avowed environmentalist, he admits that working in the automotive industry - one of the biggest sectoral air polluters in the world - has been a challenge.

"For many years, it was an uneasy fit," he says. "But the good news is that in the last ten years, there's been a tremendous shift both within the company and the industry to accept that [environmentalist] point of view. One of the things I feel best about is that we were recently named the world's greenest company by [global brand consultancy] Interbrand. Not just among automotive companies, but among any companies. It was a huge vindication of what we're doing."

Ford says that the recent scandal involving Volkswagen's diesel controversy "may" persuade more people to switch over to electric cars.

"In a perfect world, we would have more electric cars," he says. "But there are bigger drivers on this. These are mainly fuel prices and government policy. People have ideals and values but customers ultimately vote with their pockets. In Europe, the taxation policy still drives acceptance of diesel, a policy we didn't have in America so there's much less diesel there."

Self-driving autonomous vehicles may or may not make a difference here. But Ford says that while the technology on self-driving cars is almost ready, societal acceptance may still be some time off. "From a hardware standpoint, it's not that far away," he says. "From an insurance point of view or from the perspective of regulation and local laws, these are bigger inhibitors than the technology. It's hard to put too fine a point on this.

"We and other manufacturers have vehicles driving around today under controlled circumstances, we're really not far away from it. But is society ready for it? That's a different question."

One thing that is having an effect, though, is a new wave of communal transportation using cars.

"You have Uber, Lyft, Zipcar and all kinds of peer-to-peer sharing models emerging," he says.

"The pace of change here is phenomenal, even if it is particularly happening more in urban areas than in rural areas. I think in years to come, we're going to see a dichotomy between urban and rural transportation in this regard."

Autonomy in vehicles and car-sharing are, he says, "wow moments" in automotive history. But Ford is also looking beyond western urban milieux for his company's sense of development. He wants to put cars to use in a much bigger communal context.

"The company's mission is to make lives better," he says. "And if you want to make people's lives better, you need technology to have an impact on society. We've got some very interesting experiments going on, which can expand the definition of what a vehicle can do for society. In India we have a pilot programme where we send our vehicles into rural areas on bad roads and transmit data back to city hospitals to help expectant mothers monitor their pregnancies in areas where they wouldn't normally have access to healthcare. In South Africa we're doing something similar.

"And we're about to start in Nigeria, something we haven't yet announced, but I guess I'm telling you about it right now. We want to help with whatever these communities need and to make our vehicles capable of being able to assist with that. This is really exciting, it's expanding our role beyond the traditional use for vehicles."

Ford hasn't been working at Ford all of his adult life. But he has been very aware of his Irish heritage all of his life. This, he says, is "very important" to him. The last time he was here, he brought his kids to the family's ancestral home in Cork. "It's very important to me and my family. We did find out that Ford used to have an 'e' at the end and that that was dropped somewhere along the line. The cars might look very different today."

In Ireland, the company is approaching its 100th birthday here, making it one of the oldest non-food related industrial firms.

"Did you know that Ireland is the only place in the world where it's Henry Ford and Sons and not just Ford?" says Ford. "It's because my great grandfather [Henry] wanted to open a plant in Cork but the directors of the company argued that there were better uses for the money. So he went ahead and personally did it as Henry Ford and Sons. And that's why it's the only place in the world where it's still called that."

Would Ford ever consider coming back to Cork, where it ceased manufacturing vehicles in 1984? "Never say never," he says. "I would personally love it. Ireland is now one of the world's tech centres. In the short term, though, I doubt it."

In general, he says, the company is performing well. "Our company's in very good shape. We just had a great third quarter earnings and we're investing heavily in the future. We have a sexy line up in terms of our cars and trucks, particularly in Europe. We're in the midst of transforming our company to one that will look very different soon."

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