Ford CEO wants to make the iPhone of self-driving cars

Ian Thibodeau

Ford Motor Co. CEO Jim Hackett wants his company to build the iPhone of self-driving cars.

That was one of the points Hackett touched on Thursday as he talked about his rise to the top of Ford, how difficult it would be to explain the rules of the road if he were riding in a Ford Mustang with a Martian — and Ford’s position as an automotive and technology company. The comments came in response to questions at the Business Leaders for Michigan’s CEO Summit in Detroit.

The man promoted to CEO in May to replace Mark Fields and guide the company through an uncertain future mostly talked Thursday about technology and how he wants Ford to make “smart cars” as the world becomes more technologically dependent and complex.

“The evolution of (autonomous vehicles) will be the way the computer was,” he said. The iPhone, he said, is great “not just (because of) the power of the computing. It’s the human-ness. (Steve) Jobs interpreted the computer science in the way humans would love to use it.

“That’s what Ford wants to make.”

That’s going to take time, something Executive Chairman Bill Ford and Hackett have often repeated in the six months Hackett’s been CEO. Hackett was brought in as a “change agent,” but industry experts have equated changing the Blue Oval to turning around a luxury cruise liner in a narrow causeway. It’s not easy.

Wall Street wants to see something happen. The $1.6-billion third-quarter profit driven largely by vehicle sales and cost-cutting cuts surprised the investment community enough for some analysts to issue notes saying Ford could be a good long-term investment. Ford stock has gained nearly 9 percent since Hackett was named CEO in May, although it’s still down about 4 percent this year to date. Shares of crosstown rival GM have climbed more than 20 percent this year.

Hackett showed Thursday that he’s still taking a longer view on the company’s future plays. The CEO told business leaders that he’s looking at Ford’s evolution on a timeline much like the iPhone, or apps like Snapchat when compared to one of the earliest messaging mediums, the Pony Express.

People had to ditch the pony to get to create Snapchat, he said. Ford isn’t going to rid itself of vehicles, but those vehicles will change significantly.

“Ford’s future is not about giving up the car,” Hackett said. “But there’s no dumb cars in the future. There can’t be. We have to evolve these things to be ever smarter.”

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau