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The Innovation Era

Page 48

By James Martinez

Bill Ford focuses on mobility and nimble inventiveness in the auto industry

On the other side of the automotive industry’s darkest days, it’s a new era defined by the convergence of technology and information that demands innovation at a pace the world’s never seen.

According to Ford Motor Co.’s Executive Chairman Bill Ford, success in this rapidly changing environment requires a nimbleness in technological innovation and the collaboration between industries and entrepreneurs, as well as continued reinvention.

That’s a message he is uniquely positioned to deliver at the 2015 Mackinac Policy Conference, which focuses on growing Michigan’s economy through talent, urban revitalization and cohesion of leadership.

“This world that we’re entering into will require a lot of expertise, some of which we have in-house and some of which we don’t,” Ford said. “But we need to be really nimble integrators of technology, which means we’re going to need to, and we are, working with companies of all sizes – from startups to the biggest technology companies – and really encourage them along the way.”

To this effort, Ford helped bring Techshop to Detroit last year. The high-tech, do-it- yourself workshop helps inventors and entrepreneurs turn their ideas into reality. This year, Ford Motor Co. is also helping launch TechStars Mobility, Driven by Detroit, a mentor-driven start-up accelerator that helps entrepreneurs bring their concepts to market. The program will bring an inaugural class of 10 early-stage companies to downtown Detroit to rapidly develop and scale a new wave of mobility technologies – an effort that, if successful, will aid the city’s growth and revitalization.

“One of the things find most interesting in Detroit is all the start-up activity that’s happening, which really sets up Detroit well for the future,” Ford said. “As we think of our future at Ford, the technology space is going to be ever more critical and that’s really true of our entire industry. To the extent that Detroit can become an incubator for all these new ideas, it will serve the region and the autos very well.”

The increased emphasis on technology was apparent in January, when Ford Motor Co. announced its Ford Smart Mobility plan at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, reflecting both the company’s commitment to developing new innovations and the increased presence of automakers in the tech space.

“(Detroit and Silicon Valley) have to exist together. No one region has a monopoly on good ideas,” Ford said. “It’s interesting to see what’s happening. Ford just greatly expanded our presence in Silicon Valley, and some tech companies are expanding their presence in Michigan.”

Ford Smart Mobility is designed to take the company to the next level of connectivity and mobility, and ultimately to self-driving vehicles. The company launched 25 global mobility experiments this year to test new ideas to address transportation challenges, the insights of which will shape Ford’s future investments.

“One of the things that will be new for us is how quickly disruption is happening,” Ford said. “Just as soon as you get used to one technology or one technology provider, the next day there is somebody who is taking a quantum leap forward. We need to be nimble enough to adjust to that and figure out how to interact with them.”

As part of this effort, Ford sees collaboration with Silicon Valley as a must, rather than the “us versus them” scenario that is often portrayed. Ford joined the board of eBay in Silicon Valley 11 years ago because he wanted to get closer to all the trends that were happening there. During his first eight years on the board, Detroit and Silicon Valley seemed worlds apart. “The valley wasn’t looking at Detroit, and Detroit wasn’t looking at the Valley,” Ford said.

In 2009, this experience helped lead to Ford’s founding of Fontinalis, a venture capital firm located in Detroit and dedicated to next-generation mobility, which it defines as “the frictionless movement of goods, people and services brought about through the use of superior technology and services.”

The pursuit of next-generation mobility by automakers will only further intertwine tech and auto, creating new questions about how powerhouses in disparate industries from Detroit and Silicon Valley will coexist.

“(Detroit and Silicon Valley) have to exist together. No one region has a monopoly on good ideas,” Ford said. “It’s interesting to see what’s happening. Ford just greatly expanded our presence in Silicon Valley, and some tech companies are expanding their presence in Michigan.”

The same curiosity that took Ford to Silicon Valley remains a key trait that he said is critical to his or any organization’s future success – a key lesson from Ford Motor Co.’s reinvention following the industrywide struggles and its own near-death experience about a decade ago.

“You have to stay curious as individuals, and if there is such a thing as a curious company, the company has to, as well,” Ford said. “One of the things that I feel so good about our company is that, a few years ago, I asked our executives to think about redefining ourselves from a car and truck company to a technology company. There was almost no pushback. I think that’s indicative about how open-minded and curious our company has become.”

Open-mindedness will also be key to keeping pace with the dizzying evolution of the automobile, as well as the ability to integrate connectivity and technology into the mobility experience in a way that consumers embrace.

“I think the real issue is what is useful to the driver and to the occupants of the car,” Ford said. “One of the things we want to do is make sure we deliver technology in a way that makes people’s lives better and easier. That doesn’t mean just throwing technology at them in a way that confuses or even frightens them. We are working on how we present technology as much as the technology itself.”