William C. Ford II’s best decision as chairman of Ford Motor Co. was to bring in Alan Mulally as CEO in 2007 and watch the former Boeing manufacturing chief transform Ford from an also-ran into a global industry leader before he left last year.
But Ford Jr.’s “green” decision-making has been nearly as good. As CEO before Mulally’s tenure, and chairman before and until today, Ford has kept his company a leader in sustainability thinking and practice. He pushed Ford to produce some of the industry’s first hybrid-electric vehicles, for instance, and authorized a “living roof” on top of Ford’s original River Rouge Assembly complex in its hometown of Dearborn, Michigan.
Ford openly discusses his views and inclinations in response to the quickly shifting picture, even while his company has been taking some very specific new steps down the sustainability road.
“How do we make people’s lives better in big cities,” he asked rhetorically in a speech this week at the Mackinac Policy Conference sponsored by the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce – which, ironically, occurs every summer on the carless Mackinac Island in Lake Huron. “That won’t mean traditional car ownership as we’ve talked about in the past … It’s how do we provide freedom of mobility. Selling fewer vehicles will happen with or without us, so I’d like to do it from a leadership position.”
Or, as he told Automotive News in an interview, “The company that figures out how to navigate this could actually end up raising margins and changing the business model in a way that will be very healthy.”
Consistency about such things has led to broad recognition of Ford’s past leadership position. For instance, the Ethisphere Institute selected Ford as the only automaker on its 2015 list of World’s Most Ethical Companies, which is based on a number of factors including the “corporate citizenship and responsibility” exemplified by Ford’s sustainability leadership.
But what exactly does it mean for Ford to continue this thrust? For one thing, the scion and great-grandson of Henry Ford said, while about 90 percent of Ford focuses on “the work that has to be done today,” about 10 percent of the company now is working on sustainable alternatives, on “how we get to this future … We need to make sure Ford is a respected brand in transportation in 20 years.”
The company also just announced that it plans to open up hundreds of its patents on electric-car technology to any and all comers in order to help accelerate the development of electric vehicles, whose uptake by mainstream consumers has been slowed by factors including “range anxiety” and falling gasoline prices. But unlike Tesla, which opened its EV playbook for free use, Ford will be licensing its patents for a fee.
Ford also said that it will start offering a network of shared cars in London to attempt to tap into the growing market for on-demand driving, while a venture capital firm co-founded by Bill Ford has invested an undisclosed amount in U.S.-based ride-sharing service, Lyft. It also will be hiring 200 more engineers to work on electric and hybrid cars.
The company also has unveiled two prototype electric bikes with sensors and software designed by Tome, Inc. And is teaming up with Georgia Tech to develop a parking spotter app that will help users locate a spot more quickly and directly – saving fuel and cutting emissions as well as advancing an important aspect of autonomous driving.
Meanwhile, under Bill Ford’s leadership, the company is doing a lot more with the sustainability of its vehicles in the here and now. True, sales of most of its hybrid and all-electric vehicles have been disappointing, but that’s a problem Ford shares with the entire industry – except, perhaps, Tesla, whose brand and vehicles seem to transcend every other in that arena.
But there’s no bigger nameplate in the Ford stable than its F-150 pickup truck, and the company took a giant step in the green direction by “light-weighting” the new version with an aluminum body structure. Individually, the improvement in highway mileage is only 2 mpg, but as Wall Street Journal auto critic Dan Neil wrote, “By virtue of the numbers sold, the alloy-bodied F-150 probably constitutes the greatest real-world improvement in our national fleet fuel economy since the Arab oil embargo.”
F-150 embodies other features that reflect the company’s sustainability sensibilities, as well. Last month, Ford announced that the 2016 F-150 will have an available gaseous-fuel prep package that enables 5.0-liter, V8-powered models to run on clean, low-cost compressed natural gas (CNG) or propane, making Ford the only manufacturer of a CNG/propane-capable half-ton pickup. And the new model represents Ford’s most ambitious use yet of REPREVE, a 100-percent-recycled material made from plastic bottles that has been used as seat fabric by Ford mostly on electrified models for several years.
“We looked at what [a new six-cylinder EcoBoost engine] was contributing to fuel economy, and aluminum, and wanted to complement that on the interior” of the F-150, Carol Kordich, lead designer for Ford’s global sustainable fabric strategies and development, told Sustainable Brands. “Plus we wanted to build awareness. The U.S. recycles only 31 percent of our plastic bottles overall, versus 48 percent in Europe and 83 percent in China.”
In all, Ford’s futurist, Sheryl Connelly, told Sustainable Brands, the company’s sustainability leadership has a number of benefits – including in the marketplace today. Connelly said sustainable features of Ford vehicles “become points of interest or pride by consumers. And the narratives about their creation help create stronger connections to the [Ford]