DETROIT -- Bill Ford's great-grandfather, the American industrialist Henry Ford, was famous for promoting his vision to help open up "highways to all mankind."
It was an effective campaign at the dawn of the 20th century, when metal machines for private transportation were an expensive curiosity at best, and helped convince the American public that the automobile was not a luxury so much as a tool to enable that most American of notions: freedom.
Today's concept of mobility is, of course, much different: trains are a century-old technology, cars are taken for granted and the airplane is de rigueur for long-haul travel. Add to that the ubiquity of wireless computing, telecommuting and satellite communications and suddenly "mobility" -- for work, for leisure, for transport -- takes on an entirely different meaning.
That difference was brought into striking contrast on Tuesday evening, during a live interview between Bill Ford and journalist David Kirkpatrick, at a media event at Ford Field in Detroit, Mich. (Disclosure: Ford sponsored our travel to attend the event.)
Bill Ford has played an important role in transforming Ford Motor Co. from a seller of gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles and trucks to a maker of more fuel efficient, urban-oriented vehicles. In essence, he is working to recast Ford as a mobility company.
"In the post-World War II era, everyone started shoving two cars in their garage," he said. "But try doing that today in Mumbai."
With cities growing denser and congestion posing an ever-increasing problem, Ford needs to rethink its role in society. That doesn't mean it won't stop selling cars, of course -- but it does mean the company recognizes that the private automobile is just one type of transport in a world in which multiple modes are necessary, sometimes working in concert.
Last summer, Ford hinted at this strategy by investing in the car-share company ZipCar. Instead of watching the startup erode its sales -- after all, its business model revolves around supplanting car ownership for urban dwellers by renting to them by the hour instead -- Ford took a more aggressive approach, betting that Zipcar's customers are really potential Ford buyers. In turn, Ford vehicles have been added to Zipcar fleets on on 250 college and university campuses in the United States.
Speaking at the Detroit event, Bill Ford seemed to understand that improving urban mobility means providing more transportation options for urban dwellers -- not just wooing them with one. He cited the 100-mile, days-long traffic jam in China in 2010. "If we can't move people around urban areas," he said, "it's not an inconvenience, it's a human right issue."
Carmakers used to see other modes of transport, such as trains, as the enemy, Ford said. But automakers need to try to actually integrate with them.
(This all might sound odd, coming from a car-maker. But Bill Ford is really an environmentalist who happens to be part of a dynastic car family. Perhaps the most interesting admission he made during the interview was the acknowledgement that he's been able to push so hard for sustainability and more efficient cars at Ford because of his birthright. Someone else might have been laid off long ago for pushing as hard as he did, he admitted.)
To do so, Ford said he's found an ally in the current chief executive Alan Mulally. They both share a vision of making Ford a fuel economy leader, but also a technology leader. The first of these goals is not possible without the second, he said.
To succeed, Ford needs to develop the relationship between its cars and the nation's transportation infrastructure. This is already happening in obvious ways: Ford has already thrown its support behind electric vehicle charging stations and mobile applications to help EV drivers find places to recharge.
But it goes beyond that, he said. It requires viewing the car as part of a growing network of sensors.
"When it's the middle of the night and there is no one on the road, you should not have to sit at a red light and burn fuel," he said. Instead, what if cars could communicate with traffic control infrastructure to bestow signal systems with enough intelligence to manage traffic flow only when it's actually necessary?
What if streets could automatically react by physically transforming themselves to accommodate the movement of the heaviest traffic?
It's all part of of Ford's master, long-term plan. (One in which, I should note, will continue to involve selling cars to individuals and businesses.) Ford Motor Co. will remain a car company for the foreseeable future -- but what that precisely means could change over time.
Photo: David Kirkpatrick, at right, interviews Bill Ford. (Mary Catherine O'Connor)
This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com