Bill Ford’s opening gambit at his SXSW Interactive session yesterday morning was a clear stake in the ground about his vision for Ford’s future. “When do we move from being impressed with what technology can do, to how it can make people’s lives better?”
Henry Ford’s great-grandson appeared at the festival in conversation with automotive journalist Doug Newcomb, with a message of renewed brand purpose and exciting prospects for the diverse range of businesses the company is investing in to explore how to make this a reality.
The brand purpose in question? Quite simply, that every company’s charge should be to make people’s lives better, and if they don’t, they probably don’t deserve to exist. Ford spoke of his desire for company employees never to have to apologize for working for a car company and his realization over a decade ago that if the business didn’t start to look at mobility in a different way, it may end up in the same place as the tobacco industry.
Because of this early move towards the exploration of technology innovation, Ford also spoke of his absolute confidence that autonomous technology will be ready by the company’s 2021 rollout deadline. As just one example, Ford has committed to investing $1 billion in Argo AI over the next five years, the company that will develop the robots that will end up driving Ford’s autonomous cars. But the question on whether society was quite as prepared rang loud and true. “We don’t just have to build the technology though, we have to build the business case around the tech. And the technology will probably be ready much sooner.”
There are three core issues at hand. Firstly, there’s the ethics of autonomous vehicles. Who’s going to decide what these should be? Where will they be discussed? Consider the problem a robot will be programmed to make a choice on; if there’s a crash, who does it hit? Ford made clear signals to a coalition of businesses needing to be formed to make that decision.
Next up is the loss of jobs; there are currently 3.5 million truck drivers in the US alone. What happens when they’re no longer needed? Schools must start to teach skillsets that set children up for new city environments, but even harder will be supporting people currently training for jobs that may not exist – or those about to find that something they’ve done their whole lives is suddenly not required.
Lastly, there are consumer concerns. What happens when there’s a high profile accident, or series of them? People already worried about the safety of AI will be even less inclined to use driverless transport, and that could set back adoption for “a very long time”.
Underpinning these considerations presented by Ford was the clear link back to that sense of brand purpose; how is Ford going to make lives better for people? Yes, technology is exciting, but if it’s not adding value – what’s the point?
Ford referenced that the number one predictor for getting out of poverty is getting to where the jobs are. In modern cities; jobs are further away than ever. What if all of the development around modern mobility helped people getting to jobs? Through better traffic flow, instant access to automated transport and through cheaper commutes?
The company’s commitment to this is evidenced by the amount it is investing; in start-ups, in people-power to fixing global issues and in donating time to help solve many of the mobility issues it’s really in the best position to take a point of view on, as one of the world’s oldest and largest car companies.
One example of this is a purchase the company made last September via Ford Smart Mobility, where the business acquired Chariot, an on-demand commute ridesharing service in a cash-deal worth $65 million. It has plans to expand to eight new cities in 2017 – including one outside the US – to help take vehicles off the road and provide more convenient, lower cost options for commuting.
Another is Ford’s work in developing countries. While traffic jams in populous areas are an inconvenience, elsewhere in the world ambulances are simply unable to get anywhere – which makes it a human rights issue. In Africa and India, Ford is using connected vehicles to map transport routes, allowing those carrying medicine and food to plan better, and move from visiting one village a day, to three.
And this doesn’t just stop at automotive. Ford Credit, the financial services arm of the company, presents an incredible vast (and as yet untapped) database. “When you consider the future of payments relating to autonomous cars; this means shifting ownership patterns and using the data we have access to in smarter ways. Our business model will change dramatically.”
Other of Ford’s investments show this expanding and diversifying further; from Motivate, a bike sharing company, to parking solutions and mobile ticketing. “In many ways the B2B options are more interesting than B2C.”
Ford’s parting words painted a vision of change, exploration and a desire to get practical when it comes to discussing the societal impact of technology innovation. He was resolute about the exciting potential for change, with a flexible attitude of testing and learning, preparing to make some mistakes but succeed in others.
“The core issue is: how do we enable technology to happen? There needs to be profound discussions as a society. We’ve invested $4.4 billion in electrification; but a clean traffic jam is still a traffic jam. It’s vital that we solve both sustainable and mobility issues, since they’re completely interlinked.”