Henry Ford revolutionised the car industry. Can his great-grandson save the planet from global gridlock?

Bill Ford now runs a $55 billion company that has a claim to being America’s most influential and innovative corporate. In an exclusive interview, the executive chairman of the Ford Motor Company explains how the 111-year-old firm will adapt to the automotive market’s new world order.
Henry Ford revolutionised the car industry. Can his great-grandson save the planet from global gridlock?
By Ashford Fernandez
Sun 16 Nov 2014 08:58 AM

You’re here in the region to talk about the future of mobility at an event held in partnership with Dubai Chamber. Why is this issue important to you and to the region?

Globally the number of cars on the road is projected to grow from 1 billion to 4 billion by mid-century. Dubai in particular already has more than 1 million registered cars, and if we do nothing we face the prospect of global gridlock. A never-ending traffic jam not only wastes time and energy, it compromises the flow of commerce and healthcare.

The car has been equated with a lot of things in history, but environmental sensitivity and technology innovation are not usually top of this list. How is Ford changing this, and what do you see as the direction the industry itself will take?

Today’s vehicles are cleaner, more efficient and use more advanced technology than ever before. That transformation will accelerate going forward. At Ford, we see the future of mobility being driven by in-car mobile communications and driver interfaces that can help drivers better manage traffic. For example, our SYNC system proactively alerts drivers to traffic jams and accidents. But optimising individual vehicles alone will not be enough. Cars will need to become integrated into smart transportation systems that use real-time data to connect them to a city’s infrastructure, including trains, walkways, buses, bikes and everything that helps us move through urban centres. Ultimately, solving our mobility challenges will only happen when government, industry and infrastructure development come together.

Are there any specific challenges to or opportunities for this region in regard to the evolution of transport and transit?

In the Middle East, like in the rest of the world, no one company or industry will be able to solve the mobility issue alone. The speed at which solutions take hold will be determined largely by consumer acceptance of new technologies. In addition to the issue of consumer acceptance, there are technical obstacles to overcome, legal and privacy issues to resolve, global standards to create and much more work to be done. The solutions are beyond the capabilities of any one corporation; they will involve governments, NGOs, entrepreneurs and concerned citizens. Cooperation and collaboration will become as vital to business success as competition. This process also is already underway as partnerships and consortiums are being formed between companies, across industries and around the world.

You have personally been at the forefront of the evolution of efficient cars, but Ford itself has had some hits and misses in this area. Tesla and even the Ford and Toyota hybrid cars — among others — show that there is a sizeable consumer base for electric or hybrid, even at higher costs.

Even with the most advanced technologies, the timeless rules for success still apply: the vehicles that best meet the needs of customers will succeed in the marketplace. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and ensuring a diverse product portfolio gives our customers the power of choice to pick the right vehicle and right powertrain to deliver the combination of power, performance and efficiency that they are looking for.

Are you seeing significant demand for green(er) cars here in the region? Do you find that selling greener cars is more difficult in an oil-producing region, especially with the current trends of falling oil prices?

Demand for greener, more fuel-efficient vehicles varies widely across the region, driven chiefly by fuel prices and government incentives. It is worth pointing out that green vehicles are not only hybrids and electrics, but also other fuel-saving technologies, such as our Auto Start/Stop. We expect the adoption of these new technologies to rise, along with demand for fuel-efficient powertrains.

The new urban environment is practically defined by extremely efficient, comfortable, and convenient public transportation, and as you may know, the new Dubai tram system was launched last week. With your legacy in motoring, is mass transit an area where you personally feel Ford has synergies? How do you see the interplay between the emergent public transport systems in the region and private vehicle ownership?

I have long been an advocate for efficient, effective public transportation solutions that support and compliment smarter, connected vehicles.

Congestion will continue to outpace our ability to build new roads and larger highways. By making our personal vehicles more connected and interactive with a city’s infrastructure, we can develop ways to feed our public transportation systems, and ultimately help manage the mobility needs of our citizens.

Technology in the automobile is increasing at breakneck speed, and a generation now believes that autonomous cars will make the driver redundant. In many crowded cities, a car has become something that people are happy to do without. Do you see this going against your family’s efforts over the years to put more people in the driver’s seat?

My great-grandfather’s passion was to make vehicles and transportation accessible to everyone. More than a century ago, that meant putting people into a new Ford car. Today, it means finding affordable and accessible solutions to help meet the various transportation needs, whether it’s a semi-autonomous vehicle that increases fuel efficiency and safety behind the wheel or a partnership with car-share companies like Zipcar in US.

From a consumer’s point-of-view, the car is becoming more tech-heavy, with safety, entertainment, and even convenience features now digital or digitally-controlled. What is next? Are we moving towards when a car too is a key component of the ‘smart city’?

With the rapid advances in consumer technology, everything is quickly becoming connected — from refrigerators to watches to cars. Effectively, the automobile has become yet another device connected to a broader ecosystem through the so-called Internet of Things. We see the future as an integrated system in which everything talks to each other, be it through vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication, semi-autonomous and fully autonomous driving, or connecting to the cloud. We are building smarter cars, but we also need to build smart roads, parking and public transportation systems.

Do you see Ford playing a role in cities where road deaths still seem to be high?

Absolutely. We’ve been developing technologies that make our cars safer, help encourage safer driving, and help vehicles communicate with each other. Adaptive cruise control, for example, helps our drivers maintain a preset distance between their car and the car in front of them. When the car in front slows down, theirs does as well. We are also just introducing pre-collision assist with pedestrian detection first in our European Mondeo. It warns the driver of a possible collision and if the driver doesn’t respond in time, it can automatically apply the brakes. We hope technologies like these will ultimately make our roads safer.

I understand that Ford is also looking at how vehicles can help monitor our health — how does this work exactly, and how soon can we expect an in-car check-up?

We’ve been researching a seat that helps monitor a driver’s heart rate, but it is just research at this point. We do, however, have an app available right now that works with SYNC AppLink in our vehicles — it’s called Allergy Alert. It gives customers voice-controlled access to location-based allergy indexes, including pollen, asthma and ultraviolet sensitivity.

This is the first official visit for a Ford senior executive to our region. Why now? Can we look forward to a stronger Ford presence here?

The Middle East and Africa are very vibrant, exciting regions and certainly I am not the first Ford executive to spend time here. However, in many ways, the region is the final frontier for growth in the auto industry. Ford wants to play a major role not only in the business growth opportunity, but also in providing freedom of mobility and economic development in the region. That’s why we established Ford Middle East and Africa this year as our fifth business unit and that’s why I am here now — because we are committed to the region. We want to grow here and make a positive contribution to the social fabric. We intend to build on the many community and charitable initiatives we have already started here.

Around one year ago you announced the establishment of a new business unit — Ford Middle East and Africa. What does this change mean for Ford, and for the region?

It’s certainly a statement of intent. Ford Middle East and Africa is our newest global business unit and we are really excited with the potential of the region, which we expect to grow by 59 percent by 2022 to 5.9 million units and possibly higher. We plan to significantly grow our operations by getting closer to our customers and to better serve all Middle Eastern and African consumers by providing accessible products and services. Over the next couple of years, we plan to introduce 25 new vehicles for the region and accelerate the rollout of many new technologies, which will deliver an outstanding ownership experience for Ford or Lincoln products.

Are there any specific challenges that you have had to overcome to be a serious contender in the Middle East and GCC markets?

The Ford brand is successful and well-known in many parts of the region, but certainly we are only beginning to tap our potential here. Our biggest challenge is gearing up quickly to offer customers the products and service they really want and need. It’s a very diverse region in every way — culturally, economically, and geographically. That’s what makes it so interesting. Here in Dubai you see everything from Mustangs to F-150 Raptors. In South Africa, we build Ranger pickups that are hugely popular. North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa are very much developing markets. This is a highly complex and competitive region where ten years ago we might not have had the capability to really grow. However, with the One Ford plan we are able to quickly and efficiently develop products and services to meet the diverse needs here. As more and more customers realise the value of our products as well as the increasing levels of quality, safety, efficiency and smart technology, I am confident that Ford has a bright future in the region. For example, over the past five years Ford and Lincoln grew by 85 percent in the Middle East. As we prepare to introduce 25 products by 2016 in the region, and with the continued support of our dealers, we will continue to grow.

What is your outlook for the Middle East for the near-term, and do you have any message for your current and prospective customers here?

Our customers in the Middle East can look forward to our accelerated product launch cadence, which includes the all-new Mustang, Focus, and Edge as well as the new Expedition and F-150, to name but a few. We are focused on accelerating our product offerings and committed to an exceptional sales and service experience for our customers. If we deliver that, then the growth will follow.

You have relationships with your dealers in the region going back for decades, how important are these local partnerships to Ford’s success?

Our local importer-dealers have always played an integral part in growing the Ford business over the past decades, and I believe we have some of the best dealers in the industry. Their continued commitment to growing the Ford customer base is truly commendable. More than ever, we are working together on elevating the consumer experience of a Ford or Lincoln product to greater heights, be it through investing in state-of-the-art dealership facilities, offering world-class products or, of course, delivering some of the best customer satisfaction levels in the region. With the establishment of the Middle East and Africa business unit we will be able to provide a stronger support to our dealer network.

What is Ford doing here in the region to enhance the company’s reputation as a good corporate citizen?

Contributing to the communities in which we live, work and do business has been a core value for Ford since my great-grandfather founded the company more than a century ago. That remains absolutely true today. For example, I am very proud of the work we have done in South Africa over the years to combat AIDS. Through various programmes across the Middle East and Africa, we have helped develop communities, promoted safe driving, raised awareness on health-related matters, supported local conservation and environmental initiatives and much more. You will only see this commitment grow and deepen in the years to come.

This summer saw a change at the top, with Mark Fields succeeding Alan Mulally as Ford CEO and president. Mulally made an incredible impact and was much lauded for avoiding the bailout. What’s next with Fields at the helm?

There hasn’t been a change to the One Ford plan, but we are increasing our focus on accelerating and innovation.  Mark has been focusing the team on three main priorities: The continuity and acceleration of the One Ford plan, product excellence delivered with passion and innovation in every part of our business. The consistency of our plan is what will drive us going forward and continue to transform Ford into an enduring, sustainable and profitably growing company.

The Boston Consulting Group recently placed Ford 19th in a global list of innovative companies. You were also the fourth auto firm in the top 20. Is this signalling a slowdown in innovation, or is it a result of increasing competition?

Ford has a great and sometimes not fully heralded history of innovation and today the pace of change in our business is faster than ever before. Time and time again, we have launched many “firsts,” including the assembly line, flathead V-8, EcoBoost, Sync and Aluminum F-150. I believe we are at an innovation inflection point. Ten years from now the auto industry will not look the same, so we are taking a ten-year view in order to be a proactive change leader. We are thinking like a mobility company and allocating resources across the company to develop ways to leverage new technologies and new patterns of consumer behaviour.

Ford Motor Company recently committed $5bn for the re-launch of the Lincoln brand. Isn’t it too late? Do you think you can still catch-up with the competition such as the fast growing German brands and your rival Cadillac from GM?

Building a luxury brand is a long journey that requires significant investments in products, people and technologies. Owning a luxury brand is critical in the industry today and Lincoln has the potential to grow not only in North America, but also in China and the Middle East. We confirmed recently that we are going to invest more than $2.5bn of capital through 2019 to continue the Lincoln reinvention and become a world-class luxury brand. The successes of the new MKZ, MKC and Navigator speak for themselves. Every new Lincoln moving forward has been designed to be a distinctive, personal luxury vehicle with unique applications of technology.

For all the latest transport news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.