Ford: Detroit is central to changes in auto industry

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

Detroit will play a central role in re-shaping the automotive industry, Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. told a conference of entrepreneurs.

“The way people move ... is going to change in a very short period of time,” Ford said Monday in a keynote talk at the citys’ Masonic Temple. “Detroit can be — and should be — ground zero for this change.”

Already, startups and technology companies are disrupting the traditional automotive industry. General Motors Co. has recently invested half a billion dollars in Lyft; Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has partnered with Google Inc., and Ford recently invested in Pivotal, a startup software-maker. Ford said the pace of those partnerships will continue to increase as auto and tech companies become increasingly linked.

Ford said Detroit has come a long way since he helped bring the Lions back downtown in 2002, and now offers a good environment for the type of startups that are changing the way people move.

“We have more engineers here than any other state,” Ford said. “This should be mobility central; not Silicon Valley.”

Ford’s comments kicked off the inaugural Detroit Startup Week, a five-day conference aimed at entrepreneurs with big ideas.

His talk highlighted Ford’s efforts in mobility, from experimenting with electric bikes and employee shuttles to sensors that map remote areas in Africa to help deliver medicine and other services to isolated villages. He noted that the automaker needs to continue to explore these avenues while continuing to make cars and trucks that people want.

“We have to do two things at once and do them well,” he said. “We have to continue to build our core business and do a great job of that. The other is that we have to imagine this new world and find a leadership role in that, as well. It does put a strain on management, but that’s the world we’re in. We don’t have a choice. We need to do both and we need to do both well and thoughtfully.”

Ford said his company is “fully competitive” in the autonomous space.

“We’re just not out talking about it all the time,” he said.

Executives have said they expect someone, not necessarily Ford, to come out with a full driverless car by the end of the decade. The company isn’t focused on getting it out first, but rather making it affordable for the masses.

“We’re spending a ton of time internally on our strategy,” Ford said. “You can’t be all things to all people — and shouldn’t be. It’s important that our strategy be uniquely ours and one that we think lines up with our resources and our capability.”

Detroit Startup Week, a free event, is expected to draw between 2,000-3,000 participants, is being run by Techstars Mobility, an accelerator program that was founded in Colorado and launched a Detroit program in late 2014.

“This sends a statement that Detroit is really becoming a hub of entrepreneurship in Michigan,” said Ted Serbinski, managing director of Techstars Mobility in Detroit. “As Detroit continues to come back, the entire region goes with it and I think we’re seeing the rise of the Detroit entrepreneurship scene.”

Startup Week will feature dozens of speakers, including billionaire businessman Dan Gilbert on Thursday, and will offer everything from free headshots to opportunities to pitch venture capital firms.

“We’ve really been able to learn what the community needs,” said Kyle Bazzy, lead organizer of Startup Week. “The 150-plus events have been driven by the people we’re targeting to help.”

Detroit’s Techstars Mobility program helped 10 startups last year, which have gone on to raise about $3 million, Serbinski said.

The program is getting ready to launch its second class of 12 companies early next month. They’ll re-locate from around the world to Detroit from June through September to work with mentors.

Ford, Verizon Telematics and auto supplier Magna International Inc. invested $2 million to launch the accelerator program in 2014.

The investment was for the first three years of classes, and Bill Ford said Monday that partnership could continue.

“We’ve had a great run with Techstars,” Ford said. “The companies that are coming out of there are interesting.”

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