August 23, 2011

Bill Ford: The Next Big Auto Problem Isn't Oil, It's Congestion

he following remarks were delivered by Ford Motor Company Chairman Bill Ford recently to the TED Conference. In the presentation, Ford admits his environmentalist past and professes optimism about the post-carbon auto industry. But Ford devotes significant energy to explaining what he sees as the other huge threat to the future of mobility in the United State and the world: congestion. Too many cars for too many people. Ford posits in the following excerpts that finding the solution for the looming problem of congestion will be the great engineering problem of the next few decades for the transportation industry.


Bill Ford

Published in the June 2011 issue

By birth and by choice, I've been involved with the auto industry my entire life. For the past 30 years, I've worked at Ford Motor Company. For most of those years, I worried about "how am I going to sell more cars and trucks?" But today I worry about "what if all we do is sell more cars and trucks." What happens when the number of vehicles on the road doubles, triples, or even quadruples?

My life is guided by two great passions, and the first is automobiles But cars are really more than a passion of mine. They are quite literally in my blood. My great grandfather was Henry Ford, and on my mother's side, my great grandfather was Harvey Firestone. When I was born I guess you could say expectations were kind of high for me. My great grandfather Henry Ford really believed that the mission of the Ford Motor Company was to make people's lives better and to make cars affordable so that everybody could have them. He believed that with mobility comes freedom and progress, and that's a belief that I share.

My other great passion is the environment It never really occurred to me that my love of cars and trucks would ever be in conflict with nature. That was true until I got to college. When I got to college, you can imagine my surprise when I would go to class and a number of my professors would say that Ford Motor Company and my family was everything that was wrong with our country. They thought that we were more interested, as an industry, in profits rather than progress. We filled the skies with smog, and, frankly, we were the enemy.

I joined Ford after college after some soul searching whether or not this was really the right thing to do. But I decided I wanted to go and see if I could effect change there. As I look back over 30 years ago, it was a little naive to think at that age that I could. But I wanted to.

I discovered that my professors weren't completely wrong. In fact when I got back to Detroit, my environmental leanings weren't exactly embraced by those in my own company, and certainly not by those in the industry. I had some very interesting conversations, as you can imagine. There were some within Ford that believed that all this ecological nonsense should just disappear, and that I should stop hanging out with "environmental wackos." I was considered a radical. I'll never forgot the day I was called in by a member of top management and told to stop associating with any known or suspected environmentalists. Of course, I had no intention of doing that, and I kept speaking out about the environment and it really was the topic that we now call sustainability.

In time, my views went from controversial to more or less consensus today. Most people in the industry understand that we've got to get on with it. The good news is that today we are tackling the big issues of cars and the environment not only at Ford, but as an industry. We're pushing fuel efficiency to new heights, and with new technology, we're reducing, and I believe some day will eliminate, C02 emissions. We're starting to sell electric cars, which is great. We're developing alternative power trains that are going to make cars affordable in every sense of the word: economically, socially, and environmentally. Although we've got a long way to go and a lot of work to do, I can see the day where my two great passions, cars and the environment, actually come into harmony.

Unfortunately, as we're on our way to solving one monstrous problem, and as I said, we're not there yet, we have a lot of work to do, but I can see where we will, even as we're in the process of doing that another huge problem is looming that people aren't noticing. That is that the freedom of mobility that my great grandfather brought to people is now being threatened, just as the environment is. The problem put in its simplest terms is one of mathematics. Today, there are approximately 6.8 billion people in the world, and within our lifetime that number is going to grow to about 9 billion. At that population level, our planet will be dealing with the limits of growth.

With that growth comes some severe practical problems, one of which is that our transportation system simply won't be able to deal with it. When we look at the population growth in terms of cars it becomes even clearer. Today there are about 800 million cars on the road worldwide. With more people and greater prosperity around the world, that number is going to grow to between 2 and 4 billion cars by mid-century. This is going to create the kind of global gridlock that the world has never seen before.

Think about the impact that this is going to have on our daily lives. Today the average American spends about a week a year stuck in traffic jams. That's a huge waste of time and resources. But that's noting compared to what's going on in the nations that are growing the fastest. Today, the average driver in Beijing has a five-hour commute. Last summer, there was a 100-mile traffic jam that took 11 days to clear in China. In the decades to come, 75 percent of the world's population will live in cities, and 50 of those cities will be of 10 million people or more. You can see the size of the issue that we're facing. When you factor in population growth, it becomes clear that the mobility model that we have today simply will not work tomorrow.

Frankly, four billion clean cars on the road are still 4 billion cars, and a traffic jam with no emissions is still a traffic jam. If we make no changes today, what does tomorrow look like? Well I think you already have the picture. Traffic jams are just a symptom of this challenge, and they are really very inconvenient, but that's all they are. The bigger issue is that global gridlock is going to stifle economic growth and our ability to deliver food and healthcare particularly to people who live in city centers. And our quality of life is going to be severely compromised. So what's going to solve this?

Well the answer isn't going to be more of the same. My great grandfather once said, before he invented the Model T, if I had asked people then what they wanted, they would have said that they wanted faster horses. The answer to more cars is not to simply have more roads. When America began moving west, we didn't add more wagon trains. We built railroads. To connect our country after World War II, we didn't build more two-lane highways; we built the interstate highway system. Today, we need that same leap in thinking for us to create a viable future.

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We are going to build smart cars, but we also need to build smart roads, smart parking, smart public transportation systems, and more. We don't want to waste our time sitting in traffic, sitting at tollbooths, or looking for parking spots. We need an integrated system that uses real-time data to optimize personal mobility on a massive scale without hassle or compromises for travelers. Frankly, that's the kind of system that is going to make the future of personal mobility sustainable.

The good news is that some of this work has already begun in different parts of the world. The city of Masdar in Abu Dhabi uses driverless electric vehicles that can communicate with one another, and they go underneath the city streets. Up above, you've got a series of pedestrian walkways. On New York City's 34th Street, gridlock will soon be replaced by a connected system of vehicle-specific corridors. Pedestrian zones and dedicated traffic lanes are going to be created, and all of this will cut down the average rush hour commute to get across town in New York from about an hour today at rush hour to about 20 minutes.

Now if you look at Hong Kong they have a very interesting system called Octopus there. It's a system that ties together all the transportation assets into a single-payment system. So parking garages, buses, and trains-they all operate within the same system. Shared car services are also springing up around the world. There efforts are great. They are relieving congestion, and they, frankly, are starting to save some fuel. These are all really good ideas that will move us forward.

But what really inspires me is what is going to be possible when our cars can begin talking to one another. Very soon the same systems that we use today to bring music, entertainment, and GPS information into our vehicles are going to be used to create a smart vehicle network.

Every morning I drive about 30 miles from my home in Ann Arbor to my office in Dearborn, Michigan. Every night I go home, my commute is a total crapshoot. I often have to leave the freeway and look for different ways for me to try to make it home. Very soon, we're going to see the days where cars are essentially talking to one another. If a car ahead of me on I-94 hits traffic, it will immediately alert my car and tell my car to re-route itself to get my home in the best possible way. These systems are being tested right now, and frankly they are going to be ready for prime time pretty soon.

But the potential of a connected car network is almost limitless. Just imagine: one day very soon you'll be able to plan a trip downtown, and your car will be connected to a smart parking system. You get in your car, and as you get in your car your car will reserve you a parking spot before you arrive. No more driving around looking for one, which frankly is one of the biggest uses of fuel in today's cars in urban areas-looking for parking spots. Think about being in New York City and tracking down an intelligent cab on your smart phone so you don't have to wait in the cold to hail one. Or, being at a future TED conference, and having your car talk to the calendars of everyone here and telling you all the best route to take home and when you should leave so that you can all arrive at your next destination on time. This is the kind of technology that will merge millions of individual vehicles into a single system.

I think its clear we have the beginnings of a solution to this enormous problem. But as we found out with addressing CO2 issues and fossil fuels, there is no one silver bullet. The solution is not going to be more cars, more roads, or a new rail system. It can only be found I believe in a global network of interconnected solutions. I know we can develop a technology that is going to make this work, but we've got to be willing to get out there and seek out the solutions. Whether that means vehicle-sharing or public transportation or some other way we haven't even thought of yet, our overall transportation mix and infrastructure must support all the future options.

We need our best and our brightest to start entertaining this issue. Companies, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists all need to understand that this is a huge business opportunity as well as an enormous social problem. It has really been amazing to me to watch how much brain power and how much money and how much serious thought over the last really three years has poured into the green energy field. We need that same kind of passion and energy to attack global gridlock. We need people like all of you in this room, leading thinkers-frankly I really need all of you to think about how you can help solve this huge issue. We need people from all walks of life, not just inventors. We need policymakers and government officials to also think about how they are going to respond to this challenge. This isn't going to be solved by any one person or one group. It's going to require a national energy policy, frankly, for each country because the solutions in each country are going to be different based upon income levels, traffic jams and also how integrated the systems already are. We need to get going, and we need to get going today. We must have an infrastructure that's designed to support this flexible future.

You know, we've come a long way. Before the model T, most people never traveled more than 25 miles from home in their entire lifetime. Since then, the automobile has allowed us the freedom to choose where we live, where we work, where we play, and, frankly, when we just go out and want to move around. We don't want to regress and lose that freedom. We're on our way to solving, and as I know we've got a long way to go with the one big issue that we're all focused on that threatens us, and that's the environmental issue. But I believe we all must turn all of our effort and all of our ingenuity and determination to help now solve this notion of global gridlock. In doing so, we're going to preserve what we've really come to take for granted, which is the freedom to move and move very effortlessly around the world. It will, frankly, enhance our quality of life if we fix this.

If you can envision, as I do, a future of zero emissions and freedom to move around the country and around the world like we take for granted today, that's worth the hard work today to preserve that for tomorrow. I believe we're at our best when we're confronted with big issues. This is a big one, and it won't wait. So let's get started now. Thank you.

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© 2020 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.