Can an Industrial Giant Become a Tech Darling? (Ep. 357)



Ford is still wildly successful selling pickup trucks, but it’s pinning its hopes on monetizing the driver data collected by its vehicles. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty)

The Ford Motor Company is ditching its legacy sedans, doubling down on trucks, and trying to steer its stock price out of a long skid. But C.E.O. Jim Hackett has even bigger plans: to turn a century-old automaker into the nucleus of a “transportation operating system.” Is Hackett just whistling past the graveyard, or does he see what others can’t?

Listen and subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.

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Stephen DUBNER: Okay, if I’m looking at your résumé, I’m not seeing C.E.O. of an auto firm.

Jim HACKETT: Oh God, you and me both.

And yet: he is.

HACKETT: I’m Jim Hackett, president and C.E.O. of Ford Motor Company.

DUBNER: I have to ask, how’d you get to our studio today?

HACKETT: A Lincoln Navigator.

DUBNER: When’s the last time you rode in a vehicle that wasn’t made by the Ford Motor Company?

HACKETT: Probably a year before I was the C.E.O. I actually had three other vehicles in my garage when I was on the board, and I got rid of all of them.

Hackett became C.E.O. of Ford in May 2017.

NBC 4: We begin with a big shakeup at Ford. Mark Fields is out and Jim Hackett is in.

NBC 4: I mean, look, let’s face it, Jim Hackett wasn’t on anybody’s radar when it came to automotive succession here at Ford.

One reason Jim Hackett wasn’t on anyone’s radar is that he’s not what they call “a car guy.” In Detroit, the world is pretty much divided into “car guys” and everybody else. Hackett is a 63-year-old Ohio native who started out in sales and management at Procter and Gamble; then worked for many years at the Michigan furniture company Steelcase, including 19 years as C.E.O.; and after that, he was interim athletic director at the University of Michigan, his alma mater, where he hired the football coach Jim Harbaugh. He did join the board of directors of Ford in 2013, while he was still at Steelcase. But, like we said: not an obvious candidate for C.E.O. of one of America’s Big Three automakers.

However, as it is often said: desperate times call for desperate measures. And the old-line auto industry definitely has an air of desperation about it. Consider the challenges. Decades of foreign competition; the rise of ride-share services and autonomous vehicles; environmental concerns and the rise of electric vehicles, especially the ones made by Tesla; the rise of urbanization, with all that bothersome walking and biking and public transportation; the steep decline in car ownership among young people specifically and, more generally, the fact that we seem to have passed “peak motorization,” as one transportation scholar puts it. So, yeah, welcome to the Ford Motor Company, Jim Hackett!

Most C.E.O.’s we’ve interviewed for our “Secret Life of a C.E.O.” series told us about their challenges and dramatic turnaround efforts long after the fact. Like Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo:

Indra NOOYI: [From “‘I Wasn’t Stupid Enough to Say This Could Be Done Overnight’”] A few months after I became C.E.O., there was a financial collapse. The retail environment changed, the U.S. market slowed down. So one had to learn in a hurry how to run this company through extreme periods of adversity. And there’s no book you can read.

But Jim Hackett and Ford aren’t reminiscing about tough times. They’re in the middle of it, right now.

CNBC: What wrong with Ford, what’s going on in Dearborn?

NBC 4: We’re now learning more from analysts who believe the turnaround is about to get very painful.

Bloomberg: They did close under $9 a share for the first time in six years; what’s going on with Ford?

What’s going on is … a lot. Hackett recently announced a huge restructuring plan, hoping to cut $25 billion in costs; this includes a lot of layoffs and a realignment of how Ford does business in Europe, South America, and China. Hackett also announced that Ford will cut way back on making cars.

NBC 4: Adios to the Fiesta, Focus, Fusion, and Taurus.

FOX BUSINESS: Ford says it’s going to focus on SUVs and trucks.

Hackett said at the time that Ford would, “focus on products and markets where we know how to win.” What will those products and markets be? Hackett, for all his old-school credentials, has long been enamored with the Silicon Valley growth mindset. Over the past decade, Ford’s research-and-development spending has nearly doubled, and Hackett shows no sign of slowing it down. This has led one industry analyst to say Ford is “burning a lot of cash in a lot of places”; another argued that Hackett will, “keep bleating buzzwords like ‘fitness’ and ‘mobility’ without any … real plan to remake the Blue Oval.” It’s recently been reported that Ford is considering some sort of merger with VW, the German automaker that’s got its own mountain of troubles.

If you had to make a bet on the future of Ford: well, the people who do make bets — stock-market investors — they’ve been pretty decisive:

BLOOMBERG: They did close under $9 a share for the first time in six years.

So how does Jim Hackett plan to turn things around?

HACKETT: It’s beyond vehicles to transportation, and actually a transportation operating system.

A “transportation operating system” sounds an awful lot like something a pure technology company might talk about. This leads to several questions. Can a traditional manufacturing company like Ford really turn itself into a modern tech company? What makes Ford think they can succeed, when the companies whose turf they’re invading — Amazon and Google and Uber — are already so good at what they do? And what, exactly, is Ford good at these days? Finally: will Hackett’s vision for Ford turn out to be a brilliant repositioning or a desperate grab for relevance?

HACKETT: Well, there is a long answer to that.

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Ford C.E.O. Jim Hackett was visiting New York in late September, when we sat down with him in our studio.

DUBNER: Okay, so the late Gerald Ford, the 38th president of the United States, was a great athlete and played center on the Michigan football team.

HACKETT: And an all-American as well.

DUBNER: And all-American, M.V.P. of the team, they won two national championships. You also played center for Michigan and are now the president of Ford. Tell me that’s just a coincidence. Come on.

HACKETT: That’s hard, isn’t it?

DUBNER: That sounds like conspiracy to me.

HACKETT: Yeah, and there’s a history there, quickly, with President Ford, because he was sitting in office when I played at Michigan. He loved the team, so he landed Marine One on the practice field, came and talked to the team, went to the training table with us. X-years later, when I’m running Steelcase in West Michigan, there happens to be a portrait of that evening. Someone brings it in, and it’s he and I sitting together. And so I became very close to him after he was president. I would talk to him often. Always before the Ohio State game, I would call him. And the one Ford story I love to tell is that when he was negotiating arms agreements with Brezhnev in Helsinki, they stop the negotiations so he can find out what the score of the Michigan-Ohio State game is.

DUBNER: Okay, so this is a parallel out of nowhere, but I think it’s appropriate. One of the reasons that football has become dangerous — on some dimensions, and less on others — the helmet was invented to prevent skull fracture, and it’s done a great job at that. Unfortunately, the helmet is such a good protector that it began to be used as a weapon.

Interestingly, with auto travel, cars have gotten so much safer over the generations, highways have gotten safer, etc. I don’t know if drivers have gotten any better, that’s hard to prove — and yet the last numbers I saw, somewhere in the neighborhood of 35,000 traffic deaths a year in the U.S., more than a million a year globally. It’s funny, when you talk to people, people are worried about terrorism. They’re worried about murder. But if you ask people how many people they know who’ve been connected with one of those things, very few have; whereas auto fatalities, we all know someone.

So I’m curious: you’ve taken over Ford Motor Company fairly recently and this is a way of transportation that totally changed the way that we live our lives — in many positive ways and some negative ways. So what I’d like to ask you is: consider for just a moment all the positives of auto travel to date, and all the negatives, and where you see the industry at the moment, and what are the big problems or what are the big challenges to address?

HACKETT: Well, only with you would I make a connection of football with that question, but like what happened in football, if we studied the mass of the players over that period: mass equals force, right? So the size of the players and your wise observation that they could move faster and not knock themselves out caused the brain to take 100 percent of the concussive shock. So all the design now in the future is about trying to push that outwards, and then change the techniques. Mass found its way in automobiles, too.

So the earliest one’s 1903 — 115 years, Ford is — Henry worked on an electric vehicle with Thomas Edison. He was a foreman in Edison’s factory. And the early models are really light, very small because they’re trying to use bicycle components and things like that. And then, as we’ve seen in history, as the mass gets bigger, mass production allows stamping tools to take really large sheets of metal and, for a fraction of the cost if you had to do this by hand, you get to have them wrapped around those skeletal structures. What’s cool about its is that the drive to get the vehicle more fuel-efficient means we’ve got to get rid of all that weight. In trying to do that, we actually are making the structures safer for crashes. And then, of course, this isn’t a reach prediction, but we won’t have crashes in the future.

DUBNER: Because of autonomous vehicles and software?

HACKETT: And sensing, and a third thing we’ll talk about, which is the cloud. A system that’s mediating the interactions of these objects. So, we have in computing, there’s packets that move really quickly. At an atomic level, they could run into each other and do harm, but they’re mediated in a way at the speed of light. So we can do this with the design of transportation.

At the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show, or C.E.S., Hackett and other Ford executives unveiled several components of what Hackett calls “The Living Street” and Ford’s vision of a “transportation operating system.”

HACKETT: Now, the power of artificial intelligence, the rise of certain autonomous, that are all going to be connected, for the first time in a century, we have mobility technology that won’t just incrementally improve the old system, but it can completely disrupt it. So a total redesign of the surface transportation system with humans and community at the center.

But he began by addressing the question that a lot of people had to be thinking:

HACKETT: You might wonder why a furniture guy would be asked to run an automotive company.

We did wonder, and we asked him.

DUBNER: So Steelcase was regarded as a great company to work for, which, I’m guessing, you had a little something to do with. And you were regarded as — the Wall Street Journal called you,“a pioneer of the open office,” and it really did change the way that we began to think about how an office should look and feel and work. So first of all, persuade me that the notion of the open office wasn’t just a commercial idea to encourage every company in America and the world to redo their offices so that you could sell more furniture. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

HACKETT: No, no, no. I’m going to endorse that notion, but I was not the father of it. By the time I came in as C.E.O. in the late 80’s, Herman Miller, Inc. was really the early purveyor of the open office, and it came from Germany. And the real movement really started here in New York. As the rents went up, it allowed you to get more density. That was really the underlying thing.

If I want to take credit for a movement, it was shifting the amount of space that you actually devoted to cubicles, and moving that to teams. So I call that “The shift between I and we.” But to make team spaces really cool and attractive, we had to do some unique things that weren’t being done. And I want to give credit here, I buy this really cool little company in Palo Alto called IDEO.

DUBNER: And they’re like a design consultancy? How would you describe them?

HACKETT: Yeah, that’s fair, and David Kelley, its founder, is noted for architecting the mouse with Steve Jobs in its first product. So Jobs hires IDEO to do design work from outside of Apple, forever. So right until when Steve passes away, he’s using IDEO.

I meet them and I start learning about the nature of a way work might be different watching how they work. I want to tell you, I was right about that. It actually changed the way teams work. And there’s another hour on that whole thing, but it leads to an important conclusion, which is that Steelcase needs to see itself beyond furniture and be about work. And if there’s anything that enticed Bill Ford about me, it was the notion that the company, almost as long-lived as Ford, finds a higher purpose that makes its market now bigger.

Bill FORD: I’ve known Jim a long time personally.

And that is Bill Ford, chairman of the Ford Motor Company, announcing Hackett’s appointment.

FORD: And we’ve always clicked in terms of thinking about the future. But make no mistake: he’s not just a futurist, he’s a very good operating executive.

Bill Ford said that Hackett had shown himself to be a “transformational leader” at Steelcase, that he’d made the company more profitable by seeking out a higher purpose.

HACKETT: I’m saying the same thing about Ford. I think our higher purpose is that the smart vehicle and the smart world have an interaction in the future that’s much bigger than it was in the past.

DUBNER: So as Steelcase is to being beyond more than work, even though it’s making office furniture, Ford is beyond transportation, being a mobility company, tech, etc.?

HACKETT: It’s beyond vehicles to transportation, and actually a transportation operating system that we can talk about.

Hackett’s involvement in the Ford overhaul began a few years ago, when he was just a Ford board member.

HACKETT: And it’s really straightforward. I’m on the board. I’m in Palo Alto with a meeting with the board and Bill, and we’re trying to get ourselves around the question of: how can we manage the core business and this emerging thing in parallel?

This “emerging thing” would come to be known as Ford Smart Mobility, a unit meant to boost the company’s role in ride-sharing and autonomous vehicles.

HACKETT: And I tell the C.E.O. Mark Fields — I have a great relationship with him — I say, “You know, you ought to get somebody to help you manage the emerging business. Your job is too big. You need to do this.”

DUBNER: And he said, “How about you, Jim?”

HACKETT: Within half a day, Bill came and said, “That’s a great idea, why don’t you do it?” And I thought, “Eh, I ran a company. I don’t want to run a company.” So it’s like two guys playing office. He goes, “Well, just be chairman and you can hire a C.E.O.” And as I look back on that, I was naive, because I couldn’t go in there and help invent it without running it. Then running it led to — I had nothing to do with Mark’s situation, I wasn’t in the boardroom anymore. I wasn’t reporting to them. So Mark’s evolution out surprised me.

DUBNER: You business guys and your business-speak. His “evolution out.” He was fired, right?

ABC-7: The Dearborn automaker parting ways with C.E.O. Mark Fields.

CNBC: If you look at shares of Ford since Mark Fields took over in July 2014, it’s down 36 percent!

HACKETT: Yeah. But he was ahead on a bunch of ideas and I would have loved the reverse role, could I mentor him — I was the old guy — could I teach him what we’re talking about. I mean, I miss having him right now with some of the issues that I’m facing, he really had mastery of.

DUBNER: Well, let me ask you a central question here, and I guess this speaks to your ascension as C.E.O. as well, because we tend to attribute failure and success often to individuals or to single events, when in fact the world is much more complicated, plainly.

HACKETT: That’s for sure.

DUBNER: Here you are, the older guy, as you said, coming in to the company, taking over when Mark Fields was put out. And you mentioned earlier that the big concern for the Ford Motor Company and Bill Ford was how to balance the core business — making vehicles — and the emerging business, which is this smart mobility, cloud-based, etc. My big question for you is: what made all of you think that Ford needed to be in that emerging business?

HACKETT: Well, there is a long answer to that, but I’ll tell you. The way you’ve got to think about competitive sets is: the nature of what makes a business win over time is not unlike any other kinds of system — the way our bodies win in the battles they have, or the way a football team wins, or the way a market moves. I’m a student of this, complexity theory, and what that tells you is that over time, you have to mutate and evolve, because the nature of random things is going to cause more things that come at you.

So let’s just be specific: in the auto industry, it’s the randomness of climate conflict. It’s a real science thing. We’re in support of meeting a really high standard. So this starts to birth Tesla and then you put a rocket scientist, truly, in charge of that, who has a computer background, understands design really well, and he starts to question the model of the way a vehicle’s ordered and built. So he’s got a lot of that right. And it’s just one. And then he gets copied and then all of a sudden there’s a company called Lucid Motors that Chinese companies put a lot of money behind. We looked at it. These are people that are redesigning the car business.

So the board sits there and sees this happen over and over again in other industries. You don’t want to be the one that does that. So the story I tell is: let’s play Kodak for a moment. And what you have to start with: the board is smart. They’re not dummies. They have the patent for digital photography.

DUBNER: They made one of the first digital cameras, right? They were there.

HACKETT: I know a board member who was there and the issue is: you make more money on chemicals and paper than you do this new idea. So if you’re just doing pure investment comparison, stay with the old.

So what a guy like me, having gone through this in another company, Steelcase, I’m trained now to look at that problem differently, and I frankly didn’t get to talk about that much in the boardroom, but maybe Bill picked that up. Now I’ve got to prove — I’m very confident here — but I have to prove to a lot of people that we can make the core business really profitable. We’re working on that and the disruption shouldn’t scare us at all because we can lead in some areas there. So when I’m done, no date on that, but I want to make sure we’re on the right track in both of those areas.

DUBNER: Before we get into the specifics, let me just, not challenge, but question the premise a little bit more, because if you look at business history, you just look at legacy firms generally, you see that technology and time are really tough on companies. Most companies don’t stick around for too long and when the technology changes enough, many companies try to adapt with the changes and very few do well.

G.E. is a really interesting example on a number of dimensions, they went very broad and so on. What makes you think that, with that substantial history, Ford is special, or that any legacy automaker is special and can adapt and add on the technologies that are so strong and powerful, but not get beat by the companies that are tech firms and telecom firms and so on?

HACKETT: Yeah. You’ve grabbed the essence of the challenge. The affirmation is: they did it before, we just forget.

DUBNER: What do you mean?

HACKETT: Well, we didn’t always have computing, in the way a factory was run. We didn’t have — the telephone wasn’t, I don’t think, in 1903, highly pervasive, right? So think of people being paid in the factory out of a paddy wagon with real cash instead of direct deposit.

So, actually, I have a theory about this, and I’ve not written, but talked to other C.E.O.’s and I get support. The notion is that over time, you have to think about the business over phases. You can say “past” but let’s hold that off. You think about “now” and “far” and I’m going to sneak a word in, “near.” “Now, near, far.” Now what separates those time spans, because we could just make up: what’s the future? Is it a year? Is it 25 years?

What I’ve bought into, it’s science-derived. In other words, what makes the increments grow in time is Moore’s Law. Reed Hastings is on a Charlie Rose interview, and Charlie says, “Reed, what do the people in Palo Alto know that everyone else doesn’t know?” And he said, “Moore’s Law.” And Charlie goes, “Well, I know what Moore’s law is.” And he goes, “Yeah, but Charlie, you don’t understand. We’re designing for the next iteration now.” That changed me, a number of years ago. So Moore’s Law only swallows you up when you don’t think about it. So imagine we’re in meetings right now where people are talking about technology and the vehicle and they go, “Jim, can’t afford it, it’s too expensive, people won’t pay for it.” Well, I know from my friend David Kelley that Steve Jobs would say, “I want it in now because I know the price is going to be one-tenth very quickly.” So he forced the design to adopt the next iteration.

And then, of course, in Apple’s case they made money right away. Ford’s got to find a way to make money faster on that kind of theory. So, in parallel, you’re not just trying to make the product adaptive, you’re thinking the business model is going to be under attack because the economic principles have totally changed over that time.

DUBNER: So what you’re describing now are the real economics, but added to your challenge, running a company like Ford, is stock market psychology — which is a whole other realm. It’s based on economics to some degree but then the market has its own ideas. So, I’ve read, and tell me if I’m wrong, I’ve read that one thing that led to Mark Fields’s firing from Ford was when Tesla, which makes many, many fewer cars than Ford does, beat it in market cap.

HACKETT: I never was in a discussion where that was cited. But let me just cite, I know about myself in this regard. There’s a fair amount of stress around: does Jim Hackett get that the market’s got to be rewarded for these great ideas? And I totally do. Because I did it once before, first of all. And the question is: is the design of the business such that there’s a patience factor here and you get rewarded? So let’s talk about Amazon’s profitability in its history. I mean, it took a while. Let’s talk about Apple. If you look at Apple’s stock price when Steve came back —

DUBNER: Took a long time.

HACKETT: Yeah, and what they want, which those two guys gave, which I know I’ve got to, is believable momentum. They could show the compounding of the number of customers, they could show the case of add-on revenue, they could show the case of users being delighted with products.

DUBNER: They’re also due — because their products were new though, I’m curious whether they get a novelty premium that you don’t get.

HACKETT: Fair. I think that happened with the automotive competitor.

DUBNER: So we should say, as we speak, Ford Motor market cap is about $37 billion and Tesla’s market cap is about $53 billion, which I’m guessing as the C.E.O. of Ford, whether you’re going to say it or not, is a little frustrating, perhaps?

HACKETT: We make a new vehicle every four seconds.

DUBNER: There goes another.

HACKETT: You get to observe — in their business model, they’re trying to get 20,000 of them — or whatever the number was built — in a quarter or something.

DUBNER: But if you were doing the business case: let’s say you’re teaching Harvard Business School right now and the case that you want to study is Ford Motor Company versus Tesla for the moment. And we know what Ford does, what they represent, how they make their money. And we know what Tesla does. And we try to project it into the future and see what the stock price is really all about. Make the best case that Ford is undervalued right now.

HACKETT: And I really believe this. You’re not supposed to, as a C.E.O., speculate on stock price, so all I can say is: I’m really optimistic about the price-earnings ratio that understates the real value. First of all, we’ve got an industrial price-earnings ratio of six or seven, something like that.

A company’s price-to-earnings ratio is a key metric used by investors to assess how the company’s share price relates to its true value.

HACKETT: And I asked Ginni Rometty today what theirs was at I.B.M. and I think she said 11 or 12, and we were discussing Microsoft’s probably in the 20’s, right? Now these three companies, all of them are actually dealing with bits and cloud structures and data, right? But one’s in the 20’s, the other one’s in the sixes. So the case I would make is that we have as much data in the future coming from vehicles, or from users in those vehicles, or from cities talking to those vehicles, as the other competitors that you and I would be talking about that have monetizable attraction.

Now, I talk to lots of investors and they go, “Got it. Boom. Thumbs up, Jim. Go for it. Can you just prove to us that you’ve got that working?” And what you and I just agreed when we saw some of the early tech startups, they could go to market with investors only seeing a fraction of what they were going to become, and that caused belief.

I mean, who am I speaking to, right? I think that’s unfair for industrial companies at 115 years old. We have a lot of talented people. We can generate returns on that invested capital. My belief is: we have 100 million people in vehicles today, that are sitting in Ford blue-oval vehicles. That’s the case for monetizing opportunity versus an upstart who maybe has, I don’t know, what, they got 120,000 or 200,000 vehicles in place now. Just compare the two stacks: which one would you like to have the data from?

DUBNER: I hear you entirely. But I also think, “Well, who are the companies that have been good at monetizing customer data?” And we can name them. There’s Facebook, there’s Google, etc. And have they already mastered or owned that market? So what makes you think that Ford can monetize that in any significant way, enough to invest in developing that whole scenario?

HACKETT: Well, first of all, we already know as a proxy that those really wonderful firms you talk about, like Facebook — we’re a great customer of Facebook, they love us. Google loves us, because Ford’s a big advertiser. So we talk to these folks all the time. But they don’t own the healthcare data market. They are not controlling aviation data today. They may be doing flight reservations. I mean, we can find proxies where there’s data and they don’t own it. Now let’s let that just be an argument that says they’re not everywhere. They’re very powerful.

The issue in the vehicle, see, is: we already know and have data on our customers. By the way, we protect this securely; they trust us. We know what people make. How do we know that? It’s because they borrow money from us. And when you ask somebody what they make, we know where they work; we know if they’re married. We know how long they’ve lived in their house, because these are all on the credit applications. We’ve never ever been challenged on how we use that. And that’s the leverage we’ve got here with the data.

DUBNER: So the question I have is whether Ford necessarily has, not only a big role in that, but a big opportunity to monetize. So at the C.E.S. presentation, you rolled out a couple components of “The Living Street.” One is called the Transportation Mobility Cloud.

Marcy KLEVORN: Our Transportation Mobility Cloud, or T.M.C., will support the rapid development of services and applications that will enable people to move more efficiently and have access to smart, connected transportation.

DUBNER: Another was called C-V2X.

Don BUTLER: C-V2X, or Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything technology, has the potential to enable a city’s various components and applications to share information with each other, from vehicle to pedestrians and bicyclists, to the whole infrastructure, enabling collision-avoidance safety systems, traffic signal prioritization, and much more.

DUBNER: And one of the examples that your team gave was on the C-V2X component. They described a scenario in which a vehicle, “without requiring a network, can communicate when a driver needs help. Maybe he has diabetes and is going into shock … C-V2X can coordinate the response, the system can recognize the driver’s distress, send a signal to emergency responders … The vehicle can even send medical records for drivers who have opted in for that.”

So when I read that, why is this wonderful-sounding, but very-complicated-to-me-sounding solution — having the vehicle diagnose a medical emergency, for instance, rather than, say, a wearable medical device, which I’m wearing. My smartwatch is that now. And I saw a variety of examples of that in your vision whereby it seems like Ford is describing itself as a major player in this reimagining of the public square, the public space. I don’t understand what you bring to it that makes you think that you can be a big player in that space beyond the transportation component.

HACKETT: You mentioned the diabetic thing. I’ll give you a real one that’s working right now. The Los Angeles Police Department drives Ford Explorers. We have a high market share of police vehicles. In an application, that is one of our tests, they have this terribly sad story where an officer is on a mission, gets in a wreck. And the airbag knocks him out, so he dies. They can’t find him because they’re radioing him. I don’t know why they didn’t have G.P.S. or something like that, that positioned him.

What we’ve invented with them is that, every time the airbag goes off, it’s communicating its location. And now we have a team sitting inside L.A.P.D. right now, working on a dozen other ideas that we get monetized for because of the data they’re willing to share that helps build a response system for them. So that’s in use — like a person in their vehicle to the cloud.

The promise of the diabetic is: in India, this is really extreme, you can’t get an ambulance in to somebody that’s in trouble. The traffic’s too congested. The theory here is the vehicles give priority to that. So they’ll know where to go. So if you’ve been in an environment where the siren’s on, you go, “Do I go right or left?” The command will be the way air traffic is. They just tell a plane, if it’s on a collision course, they just go up or down, they don’t tell them to turn right or left. Our commands will tell you go right or left, and everybody’s moving the same way, and it knows what the oncoming traffic is doing. The simple transactions are Ford’s reducing the friction in somebody’s life.

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Just a decade ago, Ford Motor Company was the most stable of the Big Three U.S. automakers. General Motors and Chrysler both declared bankruptcy during the financial crisis and received a government bailout; Ford didn’t, although, under then-C.E.O. Alan Mulally, it did accept some federal assistance. From both a financial and business perspective, Ford seemed to be in relatively good shape. But that’s no longer the case. Despite a strong economy and stock market, Ford has been struggling, even more than the other U.S. automakers, as evidence by its battered share price.

Ford is still the king of pickup truck sales, but Moody’s Investor Service, in a recent downgrade of Ford, cited “erosion in the company’s global business position and the challenges it will face implementing its Fitness Redesign program.” “Fitness Redesign” is Ford’s way of saying it’s downsizing and restructuring — a fate that Chrysler and G.M. had forced upon them during their bankruptcies. But which Ford, paradoxically, was able to avoid — until now. One big part of Ford’s restructuring has been Jim Hackett’s recent decision to phase out nearly all Ford sedans currently on sale in North America.

NBC 4: Ford has decided to get out of the car game except for its iconic Mustang.

FOX BUSINESS: Ford says it’s going to focus on S.U.V.’s and trucks.

HACKETT: So the sedan, as a platform, you’d be shocked at how the sales have dropped off globally for everybody.

It’s worth noting that just a couple decades ago, Ford’s Taurus was the best-selling car in America. But consumer preferences have changed; the price of gas is relatively low; and there may be something of an arms race among consumers, who feel that S.U.V.’s and trucks are safer — especially when you’re on the road with so many other S.U.V.’s and trucks.

HACKETT: Yeah, well, definitely. I know with women buyers, they prefer the height, they just see better. It’s a function of seeing where you’re driving and the car’s relative position. But the other thing is: in the past, you would have to hedge if fuel prices went up, and the vehicles have gotten so fuel-efficient. Our F-150 — I give Alan Mulally a lot of credit for this, he aluminized the body of it.

DUBNER: Right, very controversial at the time. We should say that he was an airplane guy.

HACKETT: He was an airplane guy; he knew aluminum; he knew riveting; it was a really hard problem to rivet the panels. We have a lot of patents on that. But guess what: the vehicles — so this is a hard way to understand, but in the CAFE standards that are calculated for the world’s fleet, or in this case U.S. fleet, the vehicle that made the most progress in making it better is the F-150. Now it’s not as fuel-efficient as a smaller vehicle, but in contributing to global climate, it’s less of a problem.

DUBNER: But what about the profit margin; trucks and S.U.V.’s versus sedans?

HACKETT: Well, the reason you make more on them is because your price point’s higher.

DUBNER: Really? Pickup — I thought pickup trucks are cheap. We don’t have any pickup trucks in New York City, as you’ve seen.

HACKETT: So that’s the issue. But come with me to Texas.

DUBNER: No, no, no, I understand, I’ve seen the numbers.

HACKETT: I’m driving a King Ranch, which is the nickname of a luxury F-150. And I mean the leather seats and the ride —

DUBNER: That could run over the whole Ohio State defensive line, I guessing. Not that you would do that.

HACKETT: And the cool thing is: that frame — I don’t mean the physical frame of a vehicle but the idea of people sitting in vehicles like that — there’s another series below that called Ranger and it’s much smaller and it’s global and it’s very profitable. And we’re working on other ideas in that category, because people love these things.

This is the part of the Ford reboot story that you may find confusing. Which many investors seem to find confusing — or, to be fair, concerning. On the one hand, Ford talks about remaking itself as a technology firm, with their “Living Street” model and their “transportation operating system.” Earlier, you heard Hackett comparing Ford’s price-to-earnings ratio to those of I.B.M. and Microsoft, which are actual tech firms. So that’s the forward-looking part of the reboot mission.

On the other hand, Ford’s increasingly heavy reliance on truck and S.U.V. sales has more than a little throwback feel to it — especially in how the company markets itself. Jim Hackett says Ford is eager to collaborate with the Silicon Valley heavyweights in order to get a piece of their pie. But one TV ad in a new campaign called “Built Ford Proud” opens by mocking Silicon Valley. The actor Bryan Cranston, looking very Elon Musk-y or maybe Steve Jobs-y, takes the stage in front of a backdrop labeled “Future Talk.”

FORD AD: Thank you. Now let’s get started.

But then Cranston, switching out of that character, confides to the viewer …

FORD AD: The future isn’t created in a keynote address.

What does create the future?

FORD AD: Building does. Building like we have for the last 115 years. And building for the next century. Building cars. New technology. And transforming cities.

And by now Cranston is barreling through the desert in a Ford pickup truck, windows down, engine roaring.

FORD AD: So let the other guys keep dreaming about the future. We’ll be the ones building it.

The ad ends up looking like pretty much every other pickup truck ad you’ve ever seen. It doesn’t seem like the most convincing way to declare that Ford is the company that’s working on what Hackett calls “a total redesign of the surface transportation system.” By the way, these promises of new technology and transformed cities all happen atop an orchestral version of the Rolling Stones song “Paint It Black,” which came out more than a half century ago.

DUBNER: So one of the big changes in the world, but especially for your industry, is the oncoming autonomous vehicle scenario, which is incredibly exciting, and will probably have a lot of effects that many people can’t quite imagine yet, pro and con. But it strikes me that Ford is a little bit late to the starting line. And I’m curious to know, again, what makes you think that you’re going to do well in that realm?

HACKETT: I actually think it’s a myth that we’re behind. So robotics is not new; of course, they’ve been in the factories for years. Mark Fields deserves credit here. He decided that to get there faster, he was going to invest in a group of people who wanted to leave some of the notable firms working on it: Google, Uber, some others. They came to us and said, “We want to do our own startup.” So we’ve created that. It’s called Argo A.I. It’s in Pittsburgh, near Carnegie Mellon, of course.

DUBNER: Pittsburgh’s become the capital of autonomous vehicle research.

HACKETT: Yeah. And we’re the sucking sound there, because this is the who’s-who from that alumni. The guy leading our company was the number-two guy at Google working on Waymo, which, I give lots of credit to Google. I think they’ve done a great job. We believe we’re behind them, but the velocity of the vehicle’s learning’s ahead because we have people that worked there. So we’ve taken a different tact with the design of the software.

Just a quick lesson for the listeners. It’s only three years old that neural networks actually found their way into A.I. So, before that, robotics were making progress, but this is the breakthrough.

DUBNER: So let me ask you this. You recently led a team of Ford executives making a big presentation at the 2018 C.E.S., Consumer Electronics Show. And it is a huge multi-dimensional vision of how what I think of as an auto company is creating a large ecosystem that includes all different kinds of inputs. And I want to know, is that the kind of presentation you make at C.E.S. because it’s kind of good for business to invite those technology firms who come to come and play in your sandbox? Or is this a real part of your business model?

HACKETT: Yeah, I mean — and I did that in January of this year, and I’m really happy I did it because I was trying to get out the three parts of the technology evolution, which is: the nature of propulsion’s changing — to electric and hybrids. There will be gas, hybrids, and electric. There’s a robotic system. Let me give you the three letters: it’s called S.D.S., Self-Driving System is what they’re called. They’re trying to get away from autonomy and have it be labeled this way.

DUBNER: Because “autonomous” is a little too scary?

HACKETT: I think so. It’s not human-centered. It’s making the vehicle the celebrant, and we want the people inside. The third technology is this cloud structure.

DUBNER: Which you call the Transportation Mobility Cloud.

HACKETT: That’s our phrase. But all we really trying to do is orchestrate these three technologies to have an advantage for customers. The mere fact that 70 percent of the world’s population is going to be in city centers by 2050. It means we’ll be paralyzed. So I’m in New York this week, when the U.N.’s going on, and you can’t get around with the rain. President Clinton told me that he had to stay in town last night because he couldn’t get out to his home.

So we got to choreograph the system so that you reduce all this friction. The study after study that’s done about what causes jams and things like that show that a fallacy is: if you add more highway capacity, you get more throughput. The opposite happens. So there’s a famous story in China where there’s a month-long traffic jam on their biggest superhighway. Can you imagine getting in a car and you can’t get out of it for a month? So Chinese government and other places are dealing with it.

You’ve done a piece with Sidewalk Labs about smart cities. But I’m saying something different. I’m saying it feels utopian to talk about a smart city. Let’s start down the ladder and just get the transportation system to be smart. Let’s just coordinate mass transit, micro transit and your vehicles, and then the Uber-Lyft combinations, around what’s really going on in the lives of people.

And the opportunity here is enormous to change the way your life is in a city, because that system gives you the permission and the force of having what you want, when you want it. And you go, “How does it do that?” We took off 45 minutes earlier to come to you today, so I’m adding to the congestion. If I actually knew when I needed to be here, and the city mediated that, it would take all the people who are trying to get ahead out. Now that’s the traffic thing. Another quick one is parking. You lose more fuel efficiency trying to find a spot.

DUBNER: And then there’s just the real-estate question of parking.

HACKETT: I actually think a cool thing is the origami of parking, because the way lines are designed and parking lots that we’re going to be able to park really weird ways because the vehicles will negotiate their packing.

DUBNER: Well, and theoretically, with autonomous — or whatever we’re calling it, S.D.S. — we don’t need to hang on to our cars anymore, right? If you’re summoning the next one, to some degree.

HACKETT: Well, we’ve taken away the street from the people. Where’s your favorite city you like to visit? I mean, New York is one of mine. But when I go to Paris and the way the food spills out, the vehicles kind of destroy that. So we’ve painted a picture: there’s more green space, there’s more human interaction with the streets. How’s that happen? It’s because of this transportation mobility cloud, smart cars.

DUBNER: Before you go, I do want to ask you: in a recent interview you said that Ford has lost about a billion dollars in profits from metals tariffs, so a) just confirm for me I heard you right, and b) tell me if that’s true or if it’s even half-true, what are you doing about it?

HACKETT: Well, the number’s true if — the way I did the model in my head, and I should have been clear about this — you add the time the tariffs have started through next year. But still, it’s a billion dollars, and this is a really interesting thing. In my lifetime running another company, I never thought about trade. I never worried about it. So, now the C.E.O.’s time is tied up in something that they didn’t have to worry about. It needs to be updated because what happened is: those were emerging countries that are now. And the deficit’s got bigger and bigger.

So I think the administration has momentum from other administrations who likewise wanted to address it. All I’ve been asking for is that if you go in and you attack this problem, the winning state is a state of equilibrium, not a constant fight. A trade war will take away — these are stats that maybe you’ve read. The tax cut benefit to our citizens right now is going to get wiped out by this current inflation on what they’re calling the Walmart effect. So the goods that people are buying in stores have now been hit. So two-thirds of the tax benefit could be actually wiped out if we don’t get this fixed.

DUBNER: And as the C.E.O. of a car company, the uncertainty, I would imagine, can be very difficult, because we all know it’s hard to make even a personal decision when there’s that much uncertainty. So let me just really, finally, ask you the final question. When you look forward, do you see less uncertainty than I do? Do you see a clear path toward what Ford can actually accomplish based on these rather large dreams that involve everything from cloud computing to telecom in cars and so on?

HACKETT: Well, this gives you insight into me. My dad never had a bad day and he had a lot of challenges. But the optimism when he got up every day, that’s the way I was raised; as opposed to someone who heard, “Life’s going to hell in a handbasket.” I never heard that.

So I told a story to one of my colleagues today that said, “Why do you think there was a milkman in the day?” And, well, it was because we couldn’t refrigerate milk in our homes, so then they could get it to you because it had to be fresh. And then what happened was we had refrigerators, and to get scale, they moved the dairy farms further away. Then they started adding chemicals to them so they didn’t spoil, beyond homogenization. And today the average distance from farm to market’s 1,500 miles.

So the world’s looking at that and saying, “Was that the best design for humans?” What I’m optimistic about, based on the way we’ve talked today, is the transportation system caused some of that. It now can actually go backwards, so that you can have produce very close. You can send these objects of intelligence on missions for you. You can know where anybody you love is at any given time, if they want to tell you. And we can kind of know that now? But what you’re going to be able to know is going to be incredible. And in a way that I think is safe and helping humanity. So we can make Ford a really cool futuristic company in just building and making cars and selling them. We have a lot of great ideas there.

Whether these ideas are truly great, whether Ford will buck the trends of history and reinvent itself as a firm for the middle of the 21st century — I have no idea. Thanks to Jim Hackett, though, for taking the time to explain his vision for the Blue Oval.

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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Greg Rosalsky, with help from Zack Lapinski. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Alvin Melathe, and Harry Huggins; we had help this week from Nellie Osborne. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:


Jim Hackett, president and C.E.O. of Ford Motors.


Has Motorization in the U.S. Peaked?,” Michael Sivak, U.M.T.R.I. (June 2013).
Ford CEO’s Cost-Cutting Strategy in Focus During Earnings Slump,” Christina Rodgers, The Wall Street Journal. (April 2018).


How to Build a Smart City,” Freakonomics Radio (2018).
The Secret Life of a C.E.O.,” Freakonomics Radio.

The post Can an Industrial Giant Become a Tech Darling? (Ep. 357) appeared first on Freakonomics.

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