How Does Henry Ford's Great-Grandson Envision The Future?

Jun 6, 2014
Originally published on April 20, 2015 10:59 am

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Getting There.

About Bill Ford's TEDTalk

Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford describes how we can create a green future of smart roads and smart cars.

About Bill Ford

William Clay Ford Jr. is the Executive Chair of the Ford Motor Company, founded by his great-grandfather, Henry Ford, in Detroit. He joined Ford Motor Company in 1979 as a product planning analyst and has held a variety of positions.

Ford joined the Board of Directors in 1988 and has been its chairman since 1999. He says he's looking toward a future that's not simply about selling more cars; cars have to be greener and cleaner, and move more efficiently on smarter roads.

And he says sometimes people should leave their cars at home and take public transit, bike, or walk.

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It's the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, "Getting There," ideas about transport for a crowded planet. So think about where you live. And think about never going more than 25 miles from where you are right now, ever because for most of human history, that was the way it was until Henry Ford started to market the Model T to middle-class Americans.


BILL FORD: So what this really allowed people to do is to have freedom. It was really a societal shift.

RAZ: This is Bill Ford - Henry Ford's great-grandson.

FORD: My two great-grandfathers were Harvey Firestone, of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, and Henry Ford. And so in many ways my parents' marriage was more like a merger.

RAZ: (Laughing) Yeah, right. Bill is the executive chairman of the Ford Motor Company. And he was practically bottle-fed motor oil from birth.

FORD: Well, you know, I keenly remember when I was little, you know - 4, 5, 6 years old - staring out the window waiting to see what my dad was going to bring home that night. And then when he brought it home, I would leap out the front door and go through the car, probably flying from the front seat to the back seat and vice versa, checking it all out because I was really interested in it. And I remember when he brought home the first Mustang. I thought that was about the coolest thing I'd ever seen.

RAZ: Was that strange? I mean, did you feel - I don't know - like, pressure to live up to that legacy?

FORD: To me it was something I was exceptionally proud of, something that I knew a lot about. But I also tried not to let it burden me in any way and, rather than that, actually have it inspire me.

RAZ: And the way Bill Ford wants to make his mark is by changing everything about the way we're going to drive. Here's his idea from the TED stage.


FORD: By birth and by choice, I've been involved with the auto industry my entire life. And for the past 30 years I've worked at Ford Motor Company. And 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?

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. But 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. And this is going to create the kind of global gridlock that the world has never seen before.

Now, 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. And that's a huge waste of time and resources. But that's nothing 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.

And last summer, many of you probably saw this, 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.

RAZ: So in your talk you describe this traffic problems around the world, and you mentioned Beijing. And I heard that and I thought, wow. I mean, like, a five hour commute in Beijing, on average. I mean, this is happening now. I mean, we're getting to a future where, I guess, where cities just won't be able to absorb the number of cars coming in.

FORD: Yeah, it's happening. And what's happening, as a result, is a lot of municipalities are trying different kind of band-aids to ameliorate the problem. But frankly, all of those are just band-aids. And if you play that out, it becomes a human rights issue. If you can't deliver healthcare and food in major city centers because traffic simply can't move, that's a huge issue.

Right now people are looking at it as an annoyance, and it is. But it could get a whole lot worse. So the option of doing nothing, to me, is not an option.


FORD: 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've answered, we want faster horses. So the answer to more cars is simply not to have more roads.

When America began moving west, we didn't add more wagon trains. We built railroads. Today, we need that same leap in thinking for us to create a viable future. We are going to build smart cars, but we also need to build smart roads, smart parking, smart public transportation systems and more. We need an integrated system that uses real-time data to optimize personal mobility on a massive scale without hassle or compromises for travelers. And frankly, that's the kind of system that's going to make the future of personal mobility sustainable.

Now, the good news is 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. And up above, you've got a series of pedestrian walkways. Now, if you look at Hong Kong, they have a very interesting system called Octopus there. It's a system that really ties together all the transportation assets into a single payment system. So parking garages, buses, trains - they all operate within the same system. These are all really good ideas that will move us forward.

Now, every morning I drive about 30 miles from my home in Ann Arbor to my office in Dearborn, Michigan. And every night I go home, my commute is a total crapshoot. And I often have to leave the freeway and look for different ways for me to try and make it home. But very soon, we're going to see the days when cars are essentially talking to each other. So if the car ahead of me on I-94 hits traffic, it will immediately alert my car and tell my car to reroute itself to get me home in the best possible way.

And these systems are being tested right now. And frankly, they're going to be ready for primetime pretty soon. So just imagine, one day very soon you're going to be able to plan a trip downtown, and your car will be connected to a smart parking system. So you get in your car. And as you get in your car, your car will reserve you a parking spot before you arrive. This is the kind of technology that will merge millions of individual vehicles into a single system.

RAZ: You can imagine the possibilities, really, like the end of drunk driving or the end of automobile accidents, the end of traffic.

FORD: Well, and think about old people who today have to give up their driver's license.

RAZ: Yeah.

FORD: Now we can extend their life in a vehicle and make them much more independent. And then, you know, people who are disabled - I mean, there are so many really interesting aspects to this. And that, to me, is so exciting because one of the thoughts that Henry Ford had and that really drove him was this notion of opening the highways to all mankind. Well, if you play that forward, if you do allow seniors to drive longer, if you do allow disabled people to have access to mobility, you don't have drunk driving, you, once again are opening the streets to all mankind again.

RAZ: Will everything we think about driving today be completely different in 50, a hundred years?

FORD: Yeah, it certainly could be. And I wouldn't put it even at a hundred years. I mean, I think, you know, we're talking, really, the next 10 to 50 years. And the reason I picked that timeframe is a lot of the autonomous driving features are going to be coming in well within the next 10 years.

And then beyond that, though, it's going to take a little longer to really figure out one system that everything is connected to. That will take a little bit longer. But that's where we have to go so that every transportation element, whether it's a bike, buses, taxis, trains, subways, private cars, they're all going to have to be on a single network eventually.


FORD: We're on our way to solving - and as I said earlier, I know we've got a long way to go - the one big issue that we're all focused on that threatens it 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 because 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.

And frankly, we'll enhance our quality of life if we fix this because 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.


RAZ: Bill Ford - he's the product of a family merger and the executive chairman of Ford. You can find his full talk at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.