Jim Hackett, the relatively new CEO of Ford, thinks the challenge of getting us all around more efficiently is analogous to moving digital packets in a computer network. But today’s automotive and urban transportation, he says, is like networking before we had technologies like compression that enabled bits to move faster. When Uber cars slow traffic by congesting Manhattan streets, for example, he thinks it’s like ethernet’s inefficient early days.
“Transportation is a physical form of packet moving,” Hackett told me at an astonishing event the company hosted in Detroit, “and it’s logjammed the way the early networks were.” He and I were speaking in the vast, central hall of the decrepit Michigan Central Station, a long-abandoned 105-year-old behemoth that looms over Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. Ford on Tuesday formally announced it had purchased the building to turn it into a center for what it calls “mobility,” its fast-growing work to bring electrification, autonomy, and systematic cooperation to roads, vehicles, and transportation networks.
The building itself, for Hackett, is a “node on a network.” He talks about “a Southeast Michigan mobility corridor that spans west from Dearborn to Ann Arbor, and east to Detroit.” The fact that this gigantic, historic, but long-neglected office block atop a train station is right by a major thoroughfare—Michigan Avenue—is indispensably important to him. While the company will there house over 2,000 Ford employees working on modern transportation and mobility, the 600,000 square-foot, 18-story building will itself play a role in testing and proving out a future vision of interconnected transportation systems. Once it is renovated and occupied (which will take years), autonomous vehicles are likely to flow in and out and around it, directed by Ford software integrated with the software and systems of the city, the region, and is deeply aware of the needs and preferences of people. Or so Hackett would have it.
“The vehicles are so intelligent that on any given day, just picture things changing—snow or rain or ice, for example; storms coming; a Lions football game; the first day of school. The vehicle is going to know all that and make better choices in how it navigates. Then it will be getting the real time heartbeat of the city in addition to that metadata…It will make way for emergency vehicles, because it will have an algorithm to let them pass. The cars must have propulsion that’s climate sensitive. We’re all for it. But the smartness of the hybrid will allow it also to switch between gas and electric when it’s in the parts of town where the emissions do the worst damage.” And these more-than-vehicles of the future will not only be sensitive to the city around them. “What if it just doesn’t start and stop to your liking? It can’t make you carsick,” he adds.
Listening to Hackett speak is more like talking to a Silicon Valley engineer or a professional futurist than to your typical car company CEO. “I’m a tech guy. I wasn’t an automotive guy,” he says. Hackett spent 20 years as CEO of Steelcase, and explains that for much of that time the office-furniture giant owned tech and product design pioneer IDEO, based in Silicon Valley. “I was in Palo Alto every quarter for 20 years!” he exclaims.
For Detroit’s ultimate hometown company to take over what for 30 years felt like its biggest haunted building is hugely significant, and encouraging. Bill Ford, the company’s executive chairman, said in his own visionary speech at the announcement that he wanted the building to help the neighborhood and the city become more alive. He is a passionate Detroit advocate. Mayor Mike Duggan spoke of how the building was only spared, after the city decided in 2009 to tear it down, by the depths of the financial crisis, which made demolition unaffordable.
Later, I and my Techonomy colleagues Josh Kampel and Kirsten Cluthe visited Ford’s modernist glass and steel headquarters in nearby Dearborn. Hackett has redone the executive floor so it feels like the open and community-oriented coworking space where Techonomy has its offices in New York. We poked our heads into the office of Ken Washington, who has spoken repeatedly at Techonomy conferences and last year was elevated to become chief technology officer.
Washington, too, is thinking a lot about autonomous vehicles. He talked about how important next generation 5G networks will be to them (really important, but exactly how remains yet unclear) and about the urgency of getting a national discussion going about regulating and encouraging such vehicles. “I’m cautiously optimistic that it will move to a federal discussion,” he said. “The intensity level of the desire to get it right in the U.S. is increasing. A lot of industry activity now is starting to get visible, plus there’s a growing recognition of how big a priority they’re putting on it in China. And the recent accidents have raised awareness that you need a federal policy. We can’t let each state do it on their own.”
Washington had just come from a ceremony recognizing Ford engineers for receiving 700 new patents. But he said “the most important thing we’re doing today is the ethnographic research about how people want to interact with autonomous vehicles. How they’ll want to do it will be unpredictable. You’ve got to think through the human interaction model. When we say we’ll be the most trusted mobility company, that’s what we mean.”
So it was a day spent with Ford unveiling a new revitalized building, a new vision for the company’s priorities and for how we’ll all get around. The three of us from Techonomy left invigorated and excited. The companies that are going to be successful in the future are sure not going to look like the ones we’ve known before.