Tue | Aug 22, 2017

We're in an 'arms race' for smart people: Bill Ford

Published:Sunday | April 9, 2017 | 4:00 AM
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AUSTIN (TNS):

The frenetic race to develop autonomous vehicles features a lot of bold claims, management wooing, and screaming headlines:

Sleep while your car drives! Come work for us and change the world! Technology secrets stolen!

Sounds like dÈj‡ vu to Bill Ford, chairman of Ford Motor and great-grandson of Henry Ford.

"It's all emblematic of the early days in an industry," Ford told USA TODAY shortly after addressing an SXSW Interactive audience.

"The Dodge brothers were suing Henry Ford, and generally, there was a lot of turf warfare in terms of who owned what and who had access to what," said Ford. "It's the same thing playing out now. There are a lot of smart people and a lot of sharp elbows."

If there's a referee in this demolition derby, that would be new Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who is in a position to alleviate confusion by implementing national guidelines for automated vehicles.

Ford is a fan.

"I know Elaine (who was labour secretary under President George W. Bush), and when she was appointed, I called the president to say, 'Hey, well done,'" he said. "She's smart, and not a rookie coming into the automotive space saying, 'Who are you? What do you do?' We've had that, where we had to educate (new officials) from A to Z. She gets it."

That federal guidance aside, Ford predicts that self-driving cars will become a reality on a city-by-city basis. "Some mayors are way out front on this," he said. "But remember, there may be a lot of interest in solving mobility issues, but not all cities can pay for it. Things still need to be worked out."

Much like the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas has grown to embrace auto tech, SXSW is sharpening its focus on the coming transportation revolution. Big manufacturers (Ford, Mercedes Benz) join start-ups (electric car maker NIO) and industry experts to assess the challenges and opportunities of a new mobility platform.

The conference is unfolding during a swirl of industry activity.

Uber has been hit by allegations of a toxic work culture. Alphabet-owned Waymo is accusing former employee Anthony Levandowski of stealing data to start Uber-owned Otto. And Intel announced that it was buying Israeli sensor company Mobileye, known for its self-driving car technology.

OPPORTUNITIES IN CHAOS

For Ford, such chaos presents opportunities, whether that's selling talented engineers on the company's corporate culture or buying new companies.

"It's an arms race," Ford said. "If you have smart people, you have a chance to win. And if you don't, you won't."

Ford's pitch to entrepreneurs: "Whatever you do, we can scale it." To engineers: "We can give you interesting assignments all around the world." To both: "We offer our culture. That gets undersold, but it's incredibly important."

That sounds like a veiled reference to Uber, which is grappling with charges by a former employee about a sexist, dog-eat-dog workplace environment. CEO Travis Kalanick has admitted that the company has issues and has vowed to hire a second in command to help address them.

For some time, many industry watchers were betting that tech companies such as Google, now Waymo, and potentially, Apple, would take over in this century from the automakers that dominated the last. Now, the consensus is that tech firms appreciate how difficult it is to build a vehicle.

During his SXSW talk, Ford said that his company's business model is "changing dramatically. We'll become less capital intensive, higher margin, and less cyclical," suggesting that the data treasure trove in Ford Credit could yield new business opportunities.

"If we do nothing, we'll just wind up being the handset maker," he said.

On a lighter note, a few lighting-round questions drew quick Ford replies.

Would Ford consider building a billion-dollar Gigafactory like Tesla to mass-produce electric car batteries? "I'm not sure the economics of that have proven out."

How about a flying Ford car, echoing the pursuits of start-ups such as Kitty Hawk? "No, but if that comes, it better be autonomous. People have enough issues driving in 2D, let alone in 3D."

What's this car guy's favourite toy of the moment? "Has to be the very first Ford GT to come off the production line. It's not autonomous, it's not fuel efficient, but it goes like hell and is a blast."