Can Ford Motors Deliver on its Sustainability Promises?

Ford Motor Company may not be the first name that comes to mind when you think about large corporations that are committed to sustainability. After all, the company is one of the oldest and largest industrial corporations around, and produces many of the large SUVs and trucks that are at the center of the current climate controversy. So it may be surprising for some to learn that the company actually has a very extensive sustainability strategy in the works.

Several pieces of this strategy were unveiled in San Francisco last Thursday, at an event entitled Inside Ford’s Electrification Strategy. Ford’s newly-titled Director of Global Electrification, Nancy Gioia, explained how the company is not only planning to build battery-electric (BEV) and plug-in hybrid electric (PHEV) vehicles, but is also working on strategies to build the infrastructure that will support those vehicles. Attendees at the event were also invited to test-drive two news Ford vehicles, the Escape PHEV and the Focus BEV. While my fellow 3P colleague, Mary Catherine O’Connor, will be posting an in-depth look at Ford’s electrification strategy itself, I would like to talk about the company’s overall strategy.

How well Ford Motors’ actions measure up to the statements that the company has made is something that remains to be seen. Some commitments made by the company were only made after pressure was applied by shareholders. As it has been said, the proof of the pudding is in the tasting. However, the company has made some notable past efforts in greening its operations, led by current Chairman of the Board, and former CEO, Bill Ford.

Leading the Charge
Mr. Ford, Great-Grandson of founder Henry Ford is known to be an environmentalist, and has made several attempts in the past to move the company in a more sustainable direction, some very successful, and some dismal failures. His major success was the transformation of the River Rouge plant from a polluted industrial brownfield site into a model of green design, complete with green roof. Failures include canceling the company’s electric vehicle program, and the inability of the company to keep to its 2000 commitment to increase fleet gas mileage by 25% by 2010.

What is interesting about these failures is that the company cited market conditions as the main cause. As long as the consumers were demanding larger vehicles, the company needed to provide them, in order to remain in business. Ironically, it was rapidly changing consumer demand that almost put the company out of business, as the economy, rising gas prices and concern about climate change caused buyers to flee SUVs in favor of smaller cars and hybrids.

Huge corporations are not known for their ability to turn on a dime, they are more like Titanics on a competitive ocean, their rudder (leadership) too ineffective to avoid the oncoming iceberg. Perhaps this kind of disaster is the only thing that would allow such an entrenched company to make the necessary changes.

Ford’s Sustainability Strategy
So what, exactly, is the company’s strategy? According to Ford’s Director of Sustainability John J. Viera, the company is not banking on any one technology to solve the various challenges of emissions and oil dependency. Instead, it plans to introduce vehicles which run on a number of different fuels, and employ different technologies in different situations, appropriate to the situation. In addition, the company will become more involved in the fuel delivery process, as in the case of electricity and biofuels.

This was very evident while I was riding in the new Ford Focus BEV, accompanied by a Ford engineer and several of my media colleagues. The vehicle, a prototype of one scheduled to be released in the US in 2011, has a current range of approximately 80 miles, with the production model slated to have about a 100 mile range. During our ride, the engineer explained that Ford did not intend for the BEV Focus to be a car that would be driven by everyone, but would mostly be marketed as a second car or commuter car for those with commutes in the appropriate range. For longer trips, a PHEV is more appropriate.

Diversifying the Portfolio
Ford is also putting it’s money on vehicles that can run on several different types of fuels, also known as “Flex-Fuel” vehicles. These cars and trucks can use Ethanol as well as gasoline. (There are even rumors of a flex-fuel hybrid.) Another type of multiple-fuel vehicle being planned is one that has multiple fuel tanks, such as a propane and gasoline combination. In addition, the company is moving into biodiesel, and will be offering a B20 biodiesel-capable engine for its 2011 F-series trucks.

Although Clean Diesel vehicles are already being produced in Europe, the cost to bring this technology to the U.S. is currently prohibitive, but, according to Motor Trend, the company is planning on being able to offer a clean diesel engine for larger vehicles, such as the F-150 and Expedition, by 2020. This could potentially result in clean diesel technology ending up on other Ford vehicles.

By introducing an assortment of vehicles, with different types of engine running on a number of fuels, the company hopes to diversify the current U.S. portfolio of vehicles away from gasoline. By having a large number of technologies at it’s disposal and readying its worldwide operations to switch technologies quickly, “Ford anticipates it will be ready to leverage the right vehicle fuel and energy sources when and where they are needed in the future (EcoTuesday.com)“. Like diversifying a stock portfolio, this strategy would reduce the risks of dependency on oil, in addition to reducing overall greenhouse emissions.

Will the Real Ford Please Stand Up?
Speaking to the various Ford representatives, and listening to their presentations, you do get the sense that at least some of Ford’s management are very well-versed in the language of sustainability, and the strategies that they are outlining appear to be sound and well thought out. If these could be implemented in toto, it seems likely that they would work.

However, it does appear that a healthy dose of skepticism is still in order. Ford’s short-term strategy for boosting fuel efficiency is something called “EcoBoost”, which essentially uses smaller, turbo-boosted engines to replace larger engines, something that SAAB has been doing for years. I have to admit, when I first heard about this, I had that same icky feeling that I had when SAAB attempted to pass off turbo-boosting their engines as “recycling”. The catchy, too-green, name, and too-good-to-be-true claims have a faint smell of greenwashing about them; this Wall Street Journal article clearly shows that Ford is likely overstating the fuel economy benefits of turbos.

Perhaps the EcoBoost thing is simply a misstep by a company trying to do anything it can to survive. I really do hope that Ford ends up proving me wrong, for everyone’s sake. A company of this size and influence is in a position to make a huge difference in the multiple fights against climate change and oil dependency. All that is needed is for the company to take its sustainability strategy seriously and to empower good people like the ones I met on Thursday.

What do you think, is Ford going to come through on its sustainability promises?

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Steve Puma is a sustainability and personal technology consultant. He currently writes for 3p as well as on his personal blog, ThePumaBlog.com, about the intersection of sustainability, technology, innovation, and the future. Steve holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio School of Management and a BA in Computer Science from Rutgers University. You can contact Steve through email or LinkedIn, or follow him on twitter.

Steve Puma is a sustainable business consultant and writer.Steve holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School and a BA in Computer Science from Rutgers University. You can learn more about Steve by reading his blog, or following his tweets.