Bill Ford Readies For 'That Whole Frenemy Thing' With Silicon Valley

If anything has prepared Ford Motor Co. to battle Silicon Valley for dominance of the self-driving car, it’s the 10 years Bill Ford served on eBay’s board.

His time in San Jose taught him about “that whole frenemy thing in Silicon Valley,” Ford’s Executive Chairman said at an event in Dearborn earlier this month. Cooperation in the fast-paced tech world is necessary, but competition is a given. 

That makes finding a strategy to keep afloat in an industry in flux especially challenging, Ford said. “You can get mesmerized by the panoply of everything that’s going on.”

Henry Ford redefined mobility for a generation that wanted a faster horse, but now the automaker is forced to confront a different cohort: the Valley’s tech giants and startups.

A spate of automotive upstarts far west of Dearborn – Uber and Lyft, as well as Google, Tesla, and possibly Apple – are challenging the status quo for personal transportation. That means that Ford must contend with a shift in consumer behavior that even Henry couldn’t have anticipated: a new world where people enthusiastically crawl into strangers’ cars and invite them into their own.

 

The shift has dramatic implications for automakers. “This is causing us to rethink our entire business model,” Ford Chief Executive Mark Fields said at the annual Further with Ford conference.

That’s why Ford is accelerating its approach, announcing an ambitious plan to develop a high-volume, fully autonomous car by 2021 for ridesharing. Ford’s car will have no pedals, no steering wheel, and no driver, Fields said.

“The driver is the biggest cost in a ride-hailing service, and that’s the reason the majority of them aren’t making any money,” he added.

But no one at Ford has all the answers. “Will it look ridiculous?” panel moderator and Business Insider cofounder Henry Blodget asked Fields. The CEO could offer no details. “It will look very, very nice,” he said.

To get there, Ford plans to debut in 2018 a fleet of self-driving vehicles that shuttle workers around Ford’s Dearborn campus. But first, it has developed a rudimentary car that slowly drives itself around Ford’s research center. That technology, embedded in a Fusion hybrid, was surprisingly smart when I sat in the backseat during a demonstration. It could recognize crosswalks, intersections with a four-way stop (ceding right of way to the car at the intersection longest), and the left-hand turn arrow on a traffic light.

Though Google’s fleet of autonomous vehicles has similar capabilities, Fields said the Blue Oval has key advantages over its Silicon Valley rivals. Ford has the infrastructure, global brand recognition, and captive finance arm “that a lot of our competitors would love to have,” Fields said.