Beyond Gas Guzzlers, Gasoline, And Maybe Even Privately Owned Autos
BY MARTIN WRIGHT
The view from the Ford Motor Company chairman's office is a big one. Wide open plains stretch out from the Detroit suburbs, knitted together by ribbons of gray highways.
From this perch, William Clay Ford Jr. has spent his first year as Ford chairman dropping a series of small bombshells on the American auto industry. He has warned that it risks becoming a pariah on the scale of Big Tobacco if it doesn't clean up its act, and he has invited everyone from Greenpeace to Amnesty International to come in and help him do just that. He has pulled Ford out of the steadfastly anti-environment Global Climate Coalition and made the case for a 50-cent a gallon rise in gas taxes.
And his sense of mission seems to have infected his colleagues. In the foreword to the company's first corporate citizenship report, CEO Jac Nasser insists that "Ford can become a company whose decisions.., restore the environment and contribute to the creation of social and economic equity in communities around the world." This is a car company, remember. On the practical side, Bill Ford is overseeing an investment program that is pouring R&D dollars into electric cars, and alternative fuel vehicles It's a long-term vision that could transform the company's core business from selling cars into selling mobility.
"We need a second revolution " he says. Our industry has brought tremendous benefits-the freedom to live and work and vacation where you choose-but they've come at a cost.
And that cost is primarily to the environment. . . . Our goal has to be nothing less than an emission-free vehicle that is built in clean plants, which actively contribute to the environment. And it can happen within my lifetime-hopefully within my working lifetime."
At 43, Ford speaks with an almost boyish urgency, interrupting questions in his impatience to get on to the next point, eager to describe the potential of solar-powered fuel cells, but also to declare a willingness to learn from protesters in Seattle and Prague.
To say that he was born into the auto industry is an understatement. His great-grandfather (Henry Ford of Model-T fame) founded it. So his career was mapped out from the start? "Not at all. When I was at university, which is always a rebellious time, I was really drawn to working for an environmental group," he says. He joined the Ford board in 1988, barely into his 30s, fresh from running its Swiss operations-and already possessed of an address book bulging with environmentalists. It didn't exactly endear him to his management colleagues. "They told me to stop messing around with the 'crazies,"' he says. His refusal continues to irritate an industry whose initial instinct is to file all environmentalists under E for enemy. "One of the interesting little secrets of being green is that is saves you money," Ford adds, noting that the company's current environmental standards are saving it millions of dollars a year through reduced energy and water use, reduced chemical handling, and recycling.
For the most part, environmentalists have been swift to applaud the new chairman. "We're very positive," says Friends of the Earth's Roger Higman. "The great thing is that he's starting to convert his enthusiasm into action. Obviously, turning round a major manufacturer is going to take years, but we're very hopeful." Some are
more skeptical. Chris Ball of Ozone Action has called him "a good man in a tough position," but warned that continued commitment to gas-guzzling SUVs "threatens to dwarf the good works."
"The fact is that there's a real market for vehicles like that," Ford answers this frequent criticism. "If we unilaterally decided to drop all SUVs and pickup trucks, not only would we go out of business, but the customers would still be there and they would buy somebody else's. We can meet that demand more responsibly than anyone. The Excursion is 43 percent cleaner in terms of exhaust emission than its competitors, and it's made at the cleanest paint shop in the industry" He's keen to point out that Ford is looking to the days when fuel-cell technology will make concern about emissions irrelevant.
The company has unveiled the prototype of its Ford Prodigy-a hybrid electric/gasoline car that gets 80 miles per gallon. The Maverick, its hybrid
SUV, goes on the market in 2003. (Although some observers point to Toyota's undoubted lead in the hybrid arena.) A fuel-cell car is scheduled for 2004. Ford is also pioneering a new Th!nk brand, which is exploring new ideas like electric bikes and alternative fuel vehicles.
Ford also envisions the day when the company might move beyond simply selling cars. "People want access to mobility," he says. "But that doesn't necessarily mean they want to own a car. Especially not in the big cities, in London or Paris, for example. I can see the day where you'll walk into a depot with your smart card, swipe it, and keys will drop out. You then have a car to drive for an hour, a day, a month, whatever. When you're finished, you drop the keys back in and then you are billed for your usage.
How would that translate into business for the company? "Well, we haven't defined the exact model yet," he says, "but we've already got the infrastructure in place to pull this off.
We've got the network of Ford dealers, the Hertz rental car depots, and Ford Credit.
"We are not hung up on the whole idea of individual ownership of cars or trucks. We may, in the future, be producing the same number of cars, but selling fewer. We'd be selling mobility, rather than selling vehicles. . . . And if it looks as though the future is in mass transit, then we'll think about getting involved in that, too. The last thing we should ever do is define ourselves as an automaker. Whatever form mobility takes, we want to lead it.
"My sister told me the other day that I'm sounding more and more like a '60s idealist. But there's one big difference. In the '60s we could see a lot of environmental problems emerging, but we didn't have the solutions. Now the technologies are coming onstream so fast that the solutions really are in our grasp. I have not been half as outspoken in the past as I intend to be in the future."
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