Ford continues to push further

Alan Mulally and Steve Wozniak

We’ve seen many large companies, particularly automakers, rest on their laurels and become insular organizations. It’s easy to get into this rut when you measure profits in the billions and you have a huge bureaucracy.

But we’ve also seen how this attitude can lead to disaster, with the auto industry being just one example. Remember Atari? The flip side to measuring profits in the billions is measuring losses in the billions as well when things go wrong.

The culture at Ford seems very different today as the company tries to demonstrate each year in its Further with Ford conferences, where media members, bloggers and social media influencers from a wide variety of backgrounds are invited to hear from company officials, attend panel discussions from thought leaders, and of course get introduced to new Ford products and initiatives.

We were happy to attend the Further with Ford conference again this year, and CEO Alan Mulally kicked things off with an address on Monday night and was joined on stage by tech icon Steve Wozniak who would join the technology panel the next day.

Along with Chairman Bill Ford who spoke to us the next morning, Mulally has set the tone for the new Ford. The company is fiercely competing in the marketplace, while also trying to identify and adopt to trends in our fast-changing world that can impact their products on how consumers use them. Bill Ford repeated the example of car-sharing service ZipCar and how companies like that are challenging past assumptions about the auto market. Rather than ignore this development, Ford persuaded his skeptical executive team and decided to partner with ZipCar, which then ended up being an effective platform to promote Ford vehicles.

What’s most impressive about these conferences is Ford’s willingness to have real discussions with independent thought leaders who will speak their mind about the topics at hand. In one panel called “Returning to Your Senses,” the panel addressed how gadgets are infiltrating every waking moment of our lives. While Ford executive Gary Strumolo was touting new ways to interact with Ford vehicles to monitor health, MIT professor Sherry Turkle was explaining how our addition to devices was potentially harming our children, our relationships and our ability to have much needed moments of solitude. The resulting discussion was a very good one, but it showed that Ford was less interested in a scrubbed-over PR message as opposed to generating a real conversation. This willingness to address the ideas that challenge company priorities is critical to having a dynamic culture that will make a company thrive, as opposed to an insular culture where the executive team’s decisions are treated like dogma. By listening to concerns of thought leaders like Ms. Turkle, hopefully Ford can make better and informed decisions as they add more technology and interactivity to our vehicles.

The same dynamic was present in the technology panel. Ford unveiled a series of videos showing the Ford Evos concept car and how it might interact with a driver in the future. Some of the ideas were interesting, while others seemed to be trying to find a driver need or desire to fit a technology. The personalization features prompted a series of privacy questions and concerns from the media, and Steve Wozniak didn’t hesitate to emphasize that concern, pointing out that Ford and other large companies couldn’t just rely on acceptance of terms and conditions when someone starts using new features, because we always say yes in order to proceed. Instead, a real system that lets users know how their information is used with easy opt-out options for each feature is critical. That discussion probably wasn’t at the top of the Ford representative’s list as he wanted to focus on the cool new features, but again the panel was able to have a real discussion about privacy along with the technology.

The best panel by far covered design and included author Seth Godin, Jay Ward from Pixar, retailing entrepreneur Rachel Shechtman and Ford design chief J Mays. Godin touched on one of his favorite topics, as the concept of “normal” is fading away as society becomes more interconnected, making it easier for like-minded people to interact. With that in mind, companies who try to please everyone by aiming at the middle are having less success, while targeting groups who were once considered weird, or outside the mainstream, with excellent products can now lead to greater success. We’re seeing that thankfully in the auto industry as we’re seeing far fewer vehicles that seem to have been designed by committee. In trying to please everyone, you please no one.

Seth Godin

Another interesting story came from Jay Ward, who explained how Pixar approached one unnamed Detroit automaker about collaborating when Pixar was making “Cars” but was turned down. But J Mays and Ford gladly accepted the invitation. It may seem like an obvious decision now, but in old Detroit it’s not surprising that wouldn’t consider such a partnership.

Lastly, I got to drive some great cars as well and I’ll be following up with reports on each of them. The one that stands out was the Ford Fusion plug-in hybrid, which is just one example of Ford’s push into electric vehicles. In this hybrid Fusion, the braking system helps to recharge the battery, and each time you brake the dashboard will let you know how efficient you were in terms of transferring energy to the battery as a percentage all the way up to 100%.

Innovation requires a culture that is willing to challenge established beliefs. It can be difficult for large companies to develop and then maintain such a culture, but it appears Ford has found a formula that works.

Ford Fusion plug in hybrid

  

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New things from Ford

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2011 Forward with Ford
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Dearborn Mi, During the F-150 drag stripe challenge 2011 Forward with Ford participants raced to the finish line. (06/23/2011)

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We joined Ford this past weekend in Dearborn with bloggers from all over the country to see what Ford has in store for the future. How does a car company deal with changing times and new trends? All companies have to react to the changing world around them and marketplace developments, but spotting trends early can be a big advantage if a company is nimble enough to capitalize on these trends.

Some of the subjects addressed included Living Green, Aging Population and Youth Influence and Global Convergence of Design. Malcolm Gladwell kicked off the event with a keynote speech that addressed the issues of change. Gladwell is always entertaining, but I learned much more when we got to see up-close some of the real trends Ford is addressing and how they are directly impacting products.

Other companies may have been first with green initiatives like electric cars and plug-in hybrids, but Ford is pushing very hard in these areas and we’ll see new vehicles in 2012. Ford has teamed up with well-known conservation and green advocate Ed Begley Jr. who gave us a compelling presentation on what was coming from Ford in this area. Some of the changes are not obvious. One interesting innovation involves soy-based foam which is being used in the seats of cars. This foam is biodegradable and offers a great alternative to petroleum-based foam products.

We got to spend time with J Mays in the Ford Design Center and I was blown away by what they can do now in the design process. Everything is digital, and now they can see and test everything on a massive digital high def screen that covered the entire wall in a large room in the design center. Digital version of the car concepts can be places in all sorts of digital settings so the designers can see what the car can really look like in real life, all the way down to how different types of light would reflect off of different paint jobs, Even the promo “photographs” are now digitally created which saves on time and money.

On the last day we had the opportunity to drive a bunch of Ford vehicles in different settings on the test track in order to learn about various Ford vehicles and initiatives. The events were fun and I learned quite a bit. I started with the F-150 drag races and managed to win my heat. I definitely enjoyed the feeling of flooring the truck from a dead stop on a straightaway!

The most revealing exhibit involved the all-new Ford Explorer. Ford had a series of dirt hills and other obstacles built so we could put the new Explorer to the test in off-road setting. They were showing off the vehicle’s Terrain Management System and I came away very impressed. The system takes the guesswork out of 4WD capabilities. Drivers can pick from four settings – Normal, Mud, Sand and Snow. It was a breeze going up and down steep dirt hills.

It was definitely an eye-opening weekend, so we’re expecting some big things from Ford over the next couple of years.

  

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