Not long ago the American automobile industry was in a rapid free fall. The Germans and Japanese were spanking Detroit with cars that were leaner, even greener, and quite frankly were just better. The controversial 2008-2009 bailout was supposed to be the automakers’ death knell.
But now the Big 3, including Ford Motor, is charging back and has proven that the predictions of the industry’s demise were greatly exaggerated. And Ford, the one American automaker that turned down the U.S. government’s offer of assistance, is undergoing a transformation that will be typical of even more companies in the next several years. Ford has become much more than an automobile manufacturing giant: it is a design firm, a technology company and a lifestyle brand.
Like Nike, Ford can no longer be labeled as a certain type of company because of what it makes; it is now so much more than a firm that churns out cars and trucks. And with sustainability and innovation now at the company’s core, this is an exciting time for the 109 year old company and its stakeholders.
Part of Ford’s new journey is the stubborn fact that as the world’s population surges, the world cannot sustain a lifestyle where families around the world each have two cars in their garage. Rapid urbanization means that Ford can no longer just contribute to the problem; they need to find a way to solve it. And so Ford has tiptoed into this brave new world for an automaker with its partnership with Zipcar’s University program. Crowded cities that will only choke from more traffic will lead to mobility becoming a huge challenge. Ford’s future business model could lie in projects such as the SUMURR project in India, in which medical professionals use Ford vehicles to deliver critical medical care to pregnant women and newborns.
While Ford is expanding access to medical technology, the company’s very core will rely on new technologies to keep it relevant during the 21st century. Traffic jams and accidents contribute to the loss of about 90 billion work hours a year. That means more emissions going into the atmosphere and energy wasted while commuters sit in traffic. New technologies such as Ford’s automatic parking assistance are step towards a future when cars will be able to seamlessly merge into traffic and reduce the traffic jams that clog highways across the world. A biometric steering wheel under development could help keep drivers more alert and prevent accidents while saving lives. And of course there is a fun side due to new developments that will make music sound better and allow for easier hands-free communication with friends and colleagues.
Design has always been important to automakers, and to Ford and its competitors it will become even more so. The rise of social media has led to a breakdown of old barriers between customers and companies. Companies are no longer dictating what customers need; customers instead have the tools to shout demands, quite relentlessly, at companies and tell them what they want. The challenge that Ford has is to make cars that are “cool” yet cost effective, and of course, more sustainable. Just as the fashion designer Christian Siriano can easily share his creative process with his fans a continent away, Ford’s customers will be able to badger the company’s engineers and designers to create cars that look great while scoring better gas mileage - or use no gas at all.
So the pressure is on as Ford pledges to manufacture automobiles that are as eco-friendly as a car can be. For a blue-chip public company, there are numerous hurdles to the embrace of sustainability, from a cranky Wall Street to shareholders wary of the industry’s bouts of volatility. But the dynamic duo of Bill Ford and CEO Alan Mulally are on the right track.
This is not just a top-down sustainability and innovation initiative, however; employees at all levels are part of this conversation. As Mulally told me one evening, 85 percent of Ford’s employees are happy and satisfied with their tenure at Ford, an impressive ratio considering how bad the times have been at Ford. Hopefully the good times will keep on rolling and the planet can somehow be better for it. Ford is already a lifestyle company like Apple, but is moving forward, not backwards. Watch for Ford to become another Nike, where sustainability and innovation converge and lift all industries to become leaner and greener.
Leon Kaye, based in California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business and covers sustainable architecture and design for Inhabitat. You can follow him on Twitter. His first car was a 1982 Ford Escort with the horn on the left side of the steering column.
Photos courtesy Chuong Nguyen.
Disclosure: Ford covered Leon Kaye’s expenses to visit its Dearborn headquarters.