Ford’s Hackett sees growth in future with fewer cars
San Francisco — Gridlocked rush hour traffic here is enough of an impetus to get some of the nation’s top mobility minds in a room and figure out how to change things.
That’s what Ford Motor Co. tried to do Thursday, when it brought its City of Tomorrow symposium — an event that’s been held for the last few years in different locations — to America’s cradle of technology to lead discussions on how best to make self-driving vehicles, redesigned city streets and new mobility solutions focused on users.
Ford and the technology and municipal leaders who gathered want to improve life through mobility. That will mean changing how cities look. For a Ford now under the leadership of new CEO Jim Hackett, it means changing some of the company’s goals beyond selling cars, too.
“I love this about my status as CEO in a family company, because they can take a very long view,” Hackett said.
The conversations ranged, though a common theme emerged: City streets are crowded by too many single-passenger cars, and streets need to be made much safer for all forms of transportation.
Generally, multiple panelists said, roads with fewer cars are better in a multitude of ways.
Hackett and Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford want to fix that problem.
Change will be driven by autonomous vehicles, but carmakers are going to have to think a lot harder about goals for those vehicles as self-imposed deadlines approach, according to Janette Sadik-Khan, principal of transportation for Bloomberg Associates. And Ford, which has pledged a self-driving vehicle without a steering wheel or accelerator or brake pedals by 2021, is leading a push that could result in fewer vehicles on the road.
“I don’t believe there’s going to be a big degradation of sales as the cities become less congested,” Hackett said. “It’s probably going to give people more options to keep their cars, because they can choose to use them in ways that they couldn’t before.”
Ford leadership has used its City of Tomorrow concept in the past to outline how the company thinks cities of the future will move.
Under the leadership of Hackett, the conversation at the event Thursday took on a more literal tone. The leader brought in to change the company opened the day-long event inside a Fort Mason warehouse on the San Francisco Bay with a simple observation.
“Technology is magic,” Hackett said, but it needs to be applied in an intelligent, thought-out way.
Rather than displaying colorful artist renderings with flying vehicles, or rolling out futuristic concept machines, talks Thursday focused on how to bring things like autonomous vehicles, ride-hailing systems and bike-sharing to densely populated areas, and how private companies can work with municipalities to implement a real transportation ecosystem.
For Ford, it made public the conversations that typically happened behind closed doors.
“What they’re doing here demonstrates that they seem to be getting more serious about trying to execute,” said Sam Abuelsamid, analyst with Navigant Research.
Leading a fireside chat with Hackett, Alex McDowell, director of the University of Southern California World Building Institute, commented that the San Francisco event was the first Ford event that wasn’t filled with middle-aged men in sports coats.
Hackett used the half-hour time slot to touch on his “human-centric” design process, which he’s weaving into company dialogue.
It’s all meant to get to the root of how humans can interact with a product in a way that will enrich their lives.
“We have a chance to offer (new technology) in a way that humans get the advantage,” Hackett said. “All I want to get across ... I am for this new technology, because it can do a lot of things that humans can’t do today.”
Hackett added that continuing dialogue through public talks and symposiums will continue to push Ford and other companies toward the best implementations of new products. That’s something informing his assessment of the company’s autonomous programs, for example.
Hackett’s predecessor, Mark Fields, made the original promise of self-driving cars for ride-sharing programs by 2021. On Thursday, Hackett said the technology will be ready to launch by then, but it might come in a different form than ride-sharing, based on what Ford determines to be best to meet market needs.
“The tension is the evolution of the technology is progressing really well,” he said. “The markets will develop independently. ... I want choices.”