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Bill Ford says smart cities aren’t ‘just a science project’

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Ford Motor Company Chairman imagines a time when machines and humans share the road

New Models Debut At North American International Auto Show Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

In many ways, Ford Motor Company’s future is defined by its past. Bill Ford, the chairman of the company, and the great-grandson of its founder, announced plans to invest $11 billion in electrified cars at the North American International Auto Show. I spoke to Ford at the show, who expressed his enthusiasm over the company’s shift in direction to a broader vision for transportation than the cars, SUVs, and trucks it currently sells.

I love the idea of the social justice component of smart cities, but how do you reconcile that with the present where there’s such a mess with public transportation in so many areas, like New York where I live?

The vision has to be there and you have to work toward it. If you can get people out of poverty and getting to where the work is and deliver health care and food easily in city centers, we will enhance the quality of life and standard of living around the world and that’s a worthy goal. But you’re right, we’re not there yet. We’re at the early days of working toward that and I feel really good about that.

Do you partner, for instance, with the MTA?

Yes is the short answer. We have a whole business group called City Solutions that partners with cities. New York happens to be one of them because every city is different. Every city has its own transportation assets, their own problems. What we’d love to be able to do is to get all the transportation assets of a city onto a single software platform, so that you as a customer can optimize how you’re moving around that city. So we have a dynamic shuttle called Chariot. Chariot will know the train is running seven minutes late so Chariot won’t have to take up curb space for seven minutes, because it’ll all be on the same software platform. So we’re working toward that with cities. And cities have a great need for this and they are very interested in developing solutions. One size doesn’t fit all, because what’s needed in New York is not needed in LA, Columbus or any place else. Having said that, they’re a lot of common issues.

Latest Consumer Technology Products On Display At Annual CES In Las Vegas Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

So you are in the research phase?

We’re moving out of research into pilot phases. In some ways that’s research, but we’re starting to build solutions that we’re starting to work with cities on. We’re not as far along as we will be two years from now. So it’s not just a science project. We have real, concrete things we’re working today that will make cities’ lives easier. We will continue to build on those things. Each year will get better and better. We will have more to offer the cities each year.

On the list of goals, what do you put at the top?

For cities or for Ford?

Both.

You have autonomous driving coming, you have the environmental aspect, the electrification of our fleet and less congestion means less pollution, but also electrification does it as well. The autonomous vehicle, the cleaning up of the fleet, the City Solutions enabling. It’s not just cars — subways, buses, trains, taxis, Ubers, Lyfts all on the same platform. We’re tackling a lot. I wouldn’t exactly rank one over the other. They’ll all fit together when it all comes to pass.

Something that occurred to me watching the news at CES and here, is that it’s an interesting role for the car companies to play, to be educators of the general public.

That’s right. A lot of this is known and felt by the general public even if they haven’t articulated it. They know they sit in traffic. They know the air isn’t as clean as it could be. They know their life would be easier if they could have easier trip planning. But you’re right, they don’t know what the solutions will be yet. That’s where the cities and ourselves can play a big role in education. We’re not there yet. These solutions aren’t ready for primetime yet. We’re working on them. They will be eventually.

When I think back to the past, people would show concept cars for delight, not always practical reasons.

I hope we never lose the delight. There will always be an emotion to the vehicle business, and it may express itself very differently. In autonomous vehicles, it may be that you get into that vehicle, probably through your cell phone it will know you. It will know your favorite color is purple and the skin turns purple. It will know you like listening to R&B, so R&B music will play. It will know you like double espressos at Starbucks so it will ask you, do you want to stop? That will be a way of personalizing a vehicle too, it’s just different than today’s personalization, which is largely about styling, and horsepower, and handling.

The auto show is also where people come to shop for what they buy now.

Of course. And that won’t change. We’re going to live in this bifurcated world for some time, where conventional vehicles will still be sold to individual customers. Yes, they will have more of the features that will ultimately lead to autonomy in them, and then you’ll have different solutions for urban areas.

In the past at auto shows, people didn’t show cars or ideas that weren’t close to being available, except for concept cars. But now we’re talking about how this may happen in our lifetime. It’s not the flying car scenario.

Although the flying car scenario may happen in our lifetime, too.

At least the VTOL version.

I know there are a lot of issues with that though technically, it will be possible. Now whether it’s actually a benefit to society...

How do you curb that benefit to society versus the push for possibility? Where does demand come from?

We always have to keep our eye on the individual person, and say ‘Is this benefiting them?,’ and not fall in love with the technology just for its own sake. There’s so much technology happening today where it can overwhelm people and they could throw their hands up and say ‘This is confusing me.’ Our approach at Ford is to always put the human at the center of every question we ask, and say ‘Is this actually a benefit to them?’

Not giving it up to the robots?

Or at least not all to the robots.

What makes you personally most excited?

Oh gosh, I’m so excited.

You’ve been talking about these ideas for a lot longer than the company’s been on this.

That’s true, and I’m so happy to see it all starting to happen. I get up every morning and I’m so energized. I just wish I was 20 years younger. On the other hand, I plan to be here awhile. But this will change our business very fundamentally the way nothing has to date. I can’t wait to see what that looks like.

Photo by Sean O'Kane / The Verge

What do you tell people who are like, I just want another Bullitt?

They can have one. And that’s the great thing. We will live in this dual world for some time. If you love cars and you love driving and want to own one, we’re going to offer you some great ones. But if your life doesn’t allow that, because of where you live or your circumstances, we’ll have solutions for you, too.