DANA POINT, Calif. -- Ford Motor Co.'s executive chairman offered a rare glimpse yesterday into the U.S. auto industry's corporate direction and culture, painting a bright picture for the sector even as Chrysler LLC and General Motors Corp. flirt with bankruptcy.
Bill Ford, the great-grandson of Henry Ford, said the U.S. auto industry is facing an unprecedented financial crisis that has shaken its foundation. But the turn toward insolvency should mean opportunity for an "insular industry" that has long been mired in stale thinking, he said
"We haven't had a lot of revolutions, but boy, are we now," Ford said during an extensive interview here. "It's a really cool time to be part of this industry."
Executives at Chrysler and General Motors taking marching orders from the White House might take exception to that statement, but Ford described the shakeup and government bailouts as essential for an industry that is more than a century old and has often been stuck in a rigid mindset. The old guard, Ford said, is no longer "fighting" the change to new technologies because it has no other choice.
At Ford Motor Co., for example, executives have decided to bring their global platform of vehicles, including smaller models that do well in Europe, to the North American market. Ford described the move as risky, given the recent dip in the price of gasoline, but he said the company is committed to efficiency over the long haul and the belief that a downsizing of the U.S. car market is inevitable when gas prices rebound.
"Nobody wanted change, really, within the industry," said Ford, describing a boardroom atmosphere that was hostile to talk of climate change, energy efficiency and environmental protection. "But I am so energized by what's going on now, I think it's fantastic."
The comments from Ford, who served as the company's CEO from 2001 to 2006, come amid signs that a bankruptcy at GM or Chrysler could disrupt operations for the entire U.S. industry and its supply chain. Ford Motor Co. officials fear a bankruptcy filing could mean deeper concessions from unions and bondholders for Chrysler and GM, and leave the companies in better competitive shape (Greenwire, April 1).
Ford reiterated some of those concerns and said bankruptcy may not be the best option for the sector, especially as it leaves the future of hundreds of thousands of jobs in the hands of a single bankruptcy judge.
"One keeps reading about 'quick and easy' bankruptcies," he said. "I have a hard time believing it will be easy."
Call for stability
Ford was the only U.S. automaker of Detroit's Big Three to reject bailout funds from Congress. And many have credited Bill Ford for preparing the company while he was CEO faster than either Chrysler and GM for constrained oil supplies and the dawn of a carbon-constrained economy.
Ford, who sat for an interview during a forum hosted by Fortune magazine, said his priority from day one as CEO was to diversify the company's fleet to account for "whichever way the infrastructure breaks" over the next few decades. That meant developing cars powered by biodiesel, electricity, natural gas and oil all at the same time, even though predicting a victor among these options is still difficult.
"These are very, very quickly shifting technologies," Ford said. "It isn't clear to us now that ultimately there's going to be one winning technology."
Ford explained that the decision to slim down to a single global platform of vehicles -- instead of varying platforms for North America, Asia and Europe -- gives the automaker the flexibility to ramp up to, say, electric cars if consumers start pushing the market in that direction.
He called the strategy "a plug-and-play operation" that allows Ford Motor Co. to not bet on a single technology.
Still, Ford admitted the lack of stability in gas prices is a major problem. Indeed, consumers who had been rushing to buy smaller cars when gas was more than $4 a gallon have lately returned to purchasing bigger models, an issue Ford says should be addressed by government policy.
Ford said he would support a gas tax or a price on carbon to add some stability to the market that could send better signals to the auto manufacturers. Gyrations on the fuel side, he added, make it impossible to forecast which models automakers should pursue five years in advance.
"The worst thing for us is instability, and, unfortunately, that's what we've been dealing with," Ford said. "We have no idea whether we're planning the right vehicle or not."
To address the highs and lows of fuel prices, Ford would like to see a gas tax or a cap-and-trade system that establishes a hard price on carbon. He also wants the Obama administration to convene a summit of automakers, nongovernmental organizations and lawmakers to establish a "glide path" for vehicle technology.
A glide path would mirror the European model, which brought players together years ago to effectively select "clean diesel" as the vehicle of the near future, at least until hydrogen-powered or electric plug-in vehicles develop. Incentives from governments to enact the glide path made purchasing decisions easier for consumers, Ford said.
Ford said he is averse to picking winners and losers, but when the alternative is industrial collapse, he thinks the European model is a viable option.
"It worked," Ford said. "We've really lacked that in this country."
On batteries for electric cars, Ford conceded that Asian manufacturers are ahead in terms of building the actual batteries, even if U.S. companies are positioned to develop components and design cars to integrate the batteries. He sees the emerging market as a problem if Americans trade oil dependency for battery dependency.
"As a country, we're not well served to trade that one dependency for another," he said.
More broadly, Ford expects a "messy" fight on Capitol Hill over climate change and the future of his industry. But he also believes the political will is there to shape a federal law within the next year or so.
"We can't go on with cheap gasoline forever," Ford said. "It's just not a path that his country wants to go down."