At the North American International Auto Show's opening day in Detroit this week, Ford's affable CEO and President, Alan Mulally, held a Q&A session for invited bloggers -- who were given an open forum to ask questions about Ford and the auto industry in general.
The discussion ranged from what distinguishes the company from others to what strategies the company will deploy in order to continue their success in an increasingly competitive industry going forward. Along the way, Mulally was asked about the role of new technologies and how they will shape the future of transportation.
The following is a quick digest highlighting some of the key points from the discussion.
What role will cars play as population growth continues to rise, and how will the company bridge the gap with a generation that isn't growing up with car ownership?
As cities become more dense and city living becomes the prevalent lifestyle choice globally, while there will always be a need for cars, Mulally says, "We can't keep putting cars in the world's cities." Achieving "personal mobility" will become increasingly important, and it will be most important that governments invest in transportation networks in dense cities to keep people moving around.
If you are wondering whether autonomous (or "driver-less") vehicles will be an important part of the urban transportation mix, Mulally was not bullish, stating, "I think it will be a while" before such vehicles become commonplace. He identified two near-term impediments: technology and economics. Though various entities, notably Google, are testing the technology now, and indeed Ford itself had a version of the technology on display, it doesn't come cheap, adding tens of thousands to the cost of each vehicle.
In addition, as Mulally formerly headed aircraft manufacturer Boeing -- where flight deck automation has existed for years, he pointed out, "airplanes have two pilots for a reason," asserting that despite sophisticated sensors and algorithms on board aircraft, human oversight is still essential for safety. Coincidentally, I write this on the 5th anniversary of Captain "Sully" Sullunberger landing his US Airways airliner in the Hudson River saving 150 lives, which serves as a timely reminder that he makes a good point! But even so, Mulally suggested that rapid transit systems would, in many ways, be better than autonomous vehicles in moving more people around our cities.
More specifically to Ford's range of vehicles both today and in the near future, power-train options came under significant discussion. Here, Mulally categorically stated that, "the number one thing we can do is improve fuel mileage every year" is "continually improve the internal combustion engine." Mulally committed that Ford will continue to improve fuel economy across their range, asserting that the internal combustion engine won't be going away anytime soon.
That said, Mulally said Ford's brand promise is "the power choice," and to that end, highlighted the company's ongoing commitment to provide a range of drive-train choices to customers, listing off those already offered by the company today: efficient gasoline and diesel engines, hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and fully electric vehicles.
For full electric vehicles to reach critical mass, however, Mulally shared his belief that a greater number of public-private partnerships are going to be needed to develop the necessary public charging infrastructure to make them more popular, and just as importantly, he identified the need for more clean electricity generation in order for electric vehicles to have a greater positive environmental impact. As far as Ford is concerned, we'll see more electrification from them, if not pure EVs, going forward.
Fans of diesel cars should note that while Ford offers diesel engines in their trucks, clean diesel passenger vehicles - notable for their favorable fuel mileage - won't be offered by Ford in North America just yet. Mulally stated that the technology adds $6,000 to $9,000 to the cost per vehicle, mainly to meet stringent regulatory requirements. Still, Mulally said diesel technology has come along way, and suggested that a harmonization of diesel emissions standards around the world would likely be the catalyst to bring them to Ford's American markets. With a broad range of hybrids across a range of vehicle platforms, Ford demonstrates its commitment to fuel efficiency and already is the largest seller of hybrid vehicles, even beating Toyota last year.
Image credit: Phil Covington
Disclosure: Attendance by the author at the auto show was arranged and paid for by Ford
Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.