Last week I had the opportunity to be among 250 guests brought to Dearborn, Michigan by Ford; we spent 2 1/2 days seeing what they’re up to, learning a bit about their philosophy and, of course, checking out some of their latest vehicles.
Usually, when attending such a junket, you’d expect to find one or two really good nuggets, a few sessions that were quite good, and a few duds. You’d also expect to have a few logistical glitches along the way. Having now had a bit of time to digest everything that we saw and did over those days, I can honestly say that there wasn’t a single logistical glitch the entire time, and each and every session was valuable. For me that’s very much a metaphor for what I’ve come to understand and appreciate about Ford Motor Company in 2012. They do the right thing.
It’s shocking to me that I would say such a thing, but it’s true. Shocking because my last experience with a vehicle from Ford was early on in my marriage to Elana. Our first new car was a Ford Taurus, and to say it was a lemon would be kind. Even when new, the car was nothing exciting, and — just two months after the warranty ended — the engine blew, and we had to replace it. Yes, a relatively new car that needed its engine replaced. I swore I would never purchase another Ford vehicle. After the past few day, I’m going back on my word. In fact, were we in the market for a new car right now I would take a serious look at a number of Ford’s offerings. But let’s get back to the trip.
It was jam packed full of meetings, speakers, sessions, and more; I thought the best way to do a bit of a recap would be to go through the itinerary, adding a few comments along the way. So here’s how our time in Dearborn Michigan was spent.
picture by sschaen
The program began Tuesday evening when we gathered together at the Ford Stadium in Detroit Michigan. It is an unusual looking stadium because it has a tremendous amount of natural light, and there is what appears to be a road and the side of an old warehouse running through it; it is that way by design.
In fact, there is a road and the side of an old warehouse at one end of the theater. Bill Ford explained that there were certain goals he and his father had when designing and building the stadium. They wanted natural light because so few stadiums have i, and they wanted it to be tied into the surrounding community. That was accomplished by taking over a piece of one of the streets and incorporating the warehouse into the structure. The result is a stadium which is more open and airy then most and has an architectural and aesthetic appeal which is rarely found in the sterile world of sports stadiums. After cocktails and before dinner, Bill Ford spent some time speaking with us about his philosophy and what the company has been working on.
Bill Ford (great-grandson of Henry Ford) was interviewed by David Kirkpatrick, author of “The Facebook Effect”. First they spoke about Ford’s commitment to environmentalism and how his ideas and commitment were not initially accepted when he came to the company his great-grandfather had founded. In fact, he almost left a few times but stayed and plugged away until he was able to begin making the changes that he envisioned. A big part of it has been the commitment to technology, since tech is the thing that will make it possible for the changes to happen.
He addressed his commitment to environmentalism and the ways in which he has brought that commitment to the company. He also shared with us that he found himself being Don Quixote up against the windows of the traditional approach when he first arrived. He’s stuck to it, continued to stress his agenda and its importance, and the result has been a tremendous transformation within the company. He also spoke about a number of items that became the theme for the next two days – philosophical concepts that had been embraced by his great-grandfather Henry Ford that he now is turning into reality.
That commitment to sustainability is being translated into increased mileage across the Ford fleet. Their F-Series truck now comes with a 6 cylinder engine and, as a result, gets far better mileage. They worried people would not buy a truck that did not have 8 cylinder, but Ford showed them that they could save mileage while not giving up anything. They are now selling them in droves.
Among that reality is a commitment to “the democratization of technology”. His great-grandfather believed in giving automobile access to the masses. That translates in the current incarnation of Ford into how they put their newest technology in their lower end cars first. That stands in direct opposition to what most companies do – put new technology in their luxury vehicles initially and then eventually bring them to the lower end of the market. The best example of this is Ford Sync, which initially was found in the small, budget accessible part of Ford’s lineup. Ford now has over 4 million cars on the road with Sync, and they have made it an open platform so as many people as possible have access to it.
“There is lots of new technology” he said, “Some of which has been invented. Some of which needs to be invented.” To which Kirkpatrick added, “Technology is a transformative tool, if we are willing to integrate it.”
Global gridlock: As Ford put it, there are way too many cars, and it is getting worse. Traffic jams, congestion and the inability of our transportation system to handle the growing number of people and automobiles is a fast-growing issue. This will be a major health and social issue because, as he put it, if you cannot move people and supplies from one place to another, people are going to suffer. New ideas are needed, he explained, and some — like ZipCar — are already here. Ford will be supplying many of their cars.
The best way to fully appreciate Bill Ford’s approach and commitment is to watch this short speech he gave two years ago; it’s fascinating and well worth the time.
Ford also addressed the fact that the company survived the economic collapse without taking government money. Ford cited many reasons for this, but noted that at the end of the day, it was the Ford employees who stuck with the company, working harder than ever as they worried about their jobs.
“If we think of ourselves as a mobility provider rather than as a car company,” he put it, “it opens new doors and possibilities.” Later he said, “We cannot be opposed to any mode of transportation. We need to consider including and integrating it all.”
Ford is on the board of eBay. Why? It was down to Starbucks and eBay. Starbucks was fascinating because it took a commodity and found a way to charge a huge amount. eBay was interesting to him because it introduced “borderless commerce”. From being there, Ford has learned how fast they move. How in touch they are with their customers. “But, Silicon Valley can be as insular as Detroit but, overall they are a group of open thinkers who look at all the possibilities.”
The next day was spent largely focusing on the four areas delineated the previous evening. Each area was given about an hour and a half as we were brought to one specific location or another. Here’s a rundown of all four in the order that I participated.
Session 1: Streamline and Simplify, Parish Hannah, Director Human Interface for Ford
He offered a snapshot of our lives. The biggest thing to note? No surprise; we are connected most of the time but, too often, we live in the shallows of connection where we are always on the surface of things.
Thanks to technology we have also seen a blending the lines that previously existed. Among the blends, Home/Office, Work/Play, Passions/Obligations. Life is now a 16 hour day of 30-minute meetings with social media giving us so many friends but so little time to spend and connect with them. We spend, he noted, more time organizing and sorting friends than actually making them and spending with them.
He went on. We have a love and romance with gadgets, and we now live in a world in which there are apps, apps and more apps. The technology we use is everywhere; connectivity and access to the cloud are like the air we breath.
As a result, how we interface with technology is evolving. It needs to, and increasingly does include touch, voice, gesture, stylus and keypads. The more we can use all of them interchangeably the better.
Hannah noted that it all started with multi-use devices like the Swiss Army watch and the fax/printer/scanner. Devices no longer did one thing, but instead one piece of hardware suddenly performed multiple functions. This can be advantageous, but it also introduces complexity that can, and often does, overwhelm. In fact, Hannah noted that consumers are pushing back, at least in word if not actually in deed, with 41 percent say they have thought about finding a slower life. He held up the remote control as a good example of device interaction complexity still being an issue.
One solution comes from the move toward more natural interaction. “Much of the thinking we do,” he noted, “is rooted in looking at how the next generation is doing things.” They want to interact with their technology naturally. (Voice and Nuance’s natural interaction speech technology is key here.)
For that to happen, however, there needs to be trust in the technological system. We already do a fair bit of this. For example, we are letting iTunes use our credit cards without inputting the information each time. If we didn’t trust the system, we certainly would not do that.
We then moved into a panel discussion with John Hendricks, User Experience Director at Microsoft who came to his position with a tremendous degree of gaming experience and Gary Clayton, Chief Creative Officer of Nuance.
Here’s a bit of the conversation that ensued:
Clayton – There needs to be a ubiquitous design language, so you don’t need to learn how to speak differently to each device
Need to spend serious time learning to integrate all the technology.
John – Using any technology is a conversation. Devices trying to guess what you want.
Gary – key to simplification is natural language. Next stage is to go from interaction to interaction to interaction, the ability to hold a “semantic state”.
For example, you ask about mortgage rates, and then can say “What about a jumbo?”, and the computer understands what you are asking based on what was said previously.
John – We can’t do technology for technology’s sake. Sometimes things just need to be simple. Sometimes, we just want to turn on the device.
Gary – At the end of the day it all goes back to the user.
John – And trying to anticipate what people want even if they can’t tell you. After all, as Henry Ford once said, ‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have told me a faster horse.’
We need to watch how customers do things and what they care about. They need to SHOW you what they want, because asking will not give you the information you need.
We then moved to spend some time looking at Ford Sync and the Nuance Technology that powers it.
It is all about “eyes on the road, hands on the wheel”. It is not about a specific device, but about letting the consumer bring the tech they love into the car, and going from there
With Sync they started small, placing the technology in just a few models, but have expanded rapidly. They understand that we won’t get the interactions we need if people simply talk to their car. Instead they need to be able to speak to the car and get some feedback from the technology.
Some of the neatest tech is the Sync Communicator. Using natural language, it reads texts and emails on the road while you can keep “Eyes on the road and hands on the wheel”. They are also developing a “Do Not Disturb” system that shuts off outside communication when focus is needed, thereby reducing outside distractions. What is so impressive is the fact that the system will eventually use biofeedback and other sensor technology to automatically sense conditions and turn off external distractions when needed. This automatic system is important because it is unreasonable to expect people to toggle such controls on and off.
What was most striking when looking at the ways current technology has already impacted us is the realization that the era of the dumb phone was still going strong just seven years ago. That’s how quickly the technology, and life, is moving.
Session 2, Eco-Psychology:
These sessions really focused on the ideas and technology that are changing the way we think and act. A key concept for this area is the Butterfly Effect, the idea that what happens in one place has an impact elsewhere or, sometimes, everywhere.
Among the panelists for this session was Adrian Grenier, of HBO Entourage fame. He pointed out that change comes, in part, when we move people away from the mindset of “spending tons of money on nothing.” As he put it, “At the end of the day we are all the same.”
Among the technological areas being addressed by Ford are the electrification of cars. We saw the all-electric Focus. It is fast, cute and really attractive. And when I drove it on Wednesday, I also found it to be a ton of fun to drive. Unfortunately, the car has a maximum range of up to 100 miles. That is a huge problem for many people and is one that needs to be addressed on two fronts.
First, Ford is working on technology that will help people get over the fear they will run out of juice and get stuck; this is referred to as “Range Anxiety”. Second, Ford is working on battery technology that will increase the range and, in the process, lower the cost and weight of the batteries.
There were two additional technologies we looked at in the session on Eco-Psycology. We spent time in a wind-tunnel, where Ford works to make cars as aerodynamic as possible. This is a benefit to gas mileage, and it improves the overall driving experience by reducing noise and drag. We also looked at the sustainable materials Ford is already employing. These include soy-based products that are already replacing some synthetics.
So why was Grenier there? Two reasons. First, he and a partner have launched SHFT: Curating the Culture of Today’s Environment. Second, as he noted, the artist has always offered the clarion call when things were out of balance. They are, but Ford is working had to help rebalance things.
Session 3, Age of Accessible Design
Along with the “democratization of technology” Ford believes in the “democratization of design” as they seed to offer premium style and features in affordable cars.
A panel discussion moderated by Ari Goldberg of Stylecaster Media ensued. The panel included Ford’s car designer, as well as a number of people who designed for other fields – clothing, houses, and more. Design is so important, one of the panelists noted early on, because it is the only thing that distinguishes one car from another. If a car has an appealing look and style, people will want to buy it. But here’s the thing. Since fashion changes every season today’s designers are currently working on NEXT summer’s line. The automotive industry doesn’t design for one year out but, instead, designed for three to five years in the future. Put differently, the cars we will see this fall were designed three to five years ago. For example, the 2013 Ford Fusion is here and they know what the next two will look like so they have the car for the next fifteen years out!
I don’t know about you, but I would have a hard time trying to predict what the consumer will want in three or four years. I have a difficult enough time knowing what I want aesthetically right now.
We also had the opportunity to go into the Ford Design Studio. While there (no pictures were allowed) we saw the full-size clay models they build, so designers can get a real sense of the look and feel. Why do they need to build clay models? Because computers can do a great deal when it comes to design work but until you have a real-world physical representation of a vehicle you just can’t know how it resonates with you.
It is worth noting that they now save time by allowing computerized cutting machine to create the rough design of the vehicle before the actual sculptors get to work – but it really is the human involvement that the model come to life.
Side Note: The vehicle we saw both in clay form and in its early form was the Ford Fusion; it is beautiful.
Session 4, Urbanization
Projections suggest there will be four times as many cars on the road by 2050 as there are today. Gridlock is already a huge issue and it will get exponentially worse. As a result, some cities are already limiting cars and we may soon see the day when cars are entirely banned in areas. There needs to be new thinking, new technology and new modes of doing things.
At the same time, here in the US we are already seeing numerous changes. Millenials are buying fewer cars, and those buying are doing so later. This is the result of three factors. Increasingly they live in urban areas. The trend toward urbanization among young adults is astounding. In addition, they now have more things to spend significant money on, such as smartphones, and often choose to spend there. And finally, they often prefer to rent instead of own.
That’s where ZipCar comes in. Owning and maintaining a car in an urban setting can be incredibly inconvenient and expensive. ZipCar gives them access to vehicles without them having to own them. Why do they need this? Because even if you live in the city, “sometimes you just need a car”. ZipCar gives access to a car when people need it and lets them give the car back when they are done. At the present time 10 million people are within ZipCar accessibility range, and the number is growing rapidly. That translates to less cars on the road without people forgoing access to them.
The impact is tremendous. Car-owning homes spend 19% of annual budget spent on transportation. ZipCar households spend just 6%. The company has over 700,000 members and is growing rapidly.
I had previously heard of ZipCar, but never thought much about it. That evening, however, I had a chance to speak with another GoFurther with Ford attendee who swears by the service. She and her husband use it, and they absolutely love having “access without ownership”. And while it would not work here in suburban New Jersey, if I were living in the city I would most certainly be the 700,001st ZipCar user.
The day ended at TechShop Detroit, an ingenious concept turned reality that gives access to tools and machinery that would otherwise be inaccessible to anyone other than large corporations with tremendous amounts of money. For a small initiation fee and a relatively small monthly fee members have access to all of the tools that would otherwise elude them. A quick rundown of some of the products and inventions that have been born at tech shop gives a sense of how powerful the concept is. What are some of those products? How about the bamboo DoDo case for the iPad? Or the jet pack? Or a new baby warmer that can help save the life of a newborn that would otherwise be at risk if born outside the hospital.
Or how about the Square payment system? All of them and many more were developed at TechShop.
The final speaker before we went into the rest of the evening – read making stuff, eating and drinking! – was Alan Mulally, the current CEO of Ford. He spoke about the shape the company was in prior to his joining the team. He addressed the fact that they had remade and reshaped the company. He shared why the company didn’t take government money when the economy collapsed and how they have paid back all of the money they borrowed from the banks and then some. Yes, the automotive industry was about to die just a few years ago and with great leadership, commitment from employees, and the willingness to rethink approach and design, Ford is now doing phenomenally well and is once again a profitable business.
It was inspiring to hear him speak about a huge company and the issue of responsibility to consumers, employees and the environment.
The Ford Testing Track:
Our last day in Detroit was spent at the Ford Testing Track. This was all about fun and, as the post I shared on Thursday indicates, we had the chance to drive the number of the current and upcoming models being offered by Ford.
I drove Ford’s all-electric Focus.
It was fun and fast.
And a Ford Interceptor. It has the same engine as the SHO and boy is it fast.
And the 2013 Mustang… I want!!!
I love my IS250. It’s fun to drive, comfortable and has all the bells and whistles I want. That noted, I came away from driving Ford vehicles more than a bit impressed and, I have no doubt that when my lease is up I will certainly be looking at some of their 2015 cars; for example, the 2013 Ford Explorer is a bit smaller, has a sleek design, and is a whole lot of fun to drive.