New Ford CEO Hints at Changes in Auto Maker's Self-Driving Plans

Published August 17, 2017
Dow Jones Newswires

Fresh into his role as Ford Motor Co.'s chief executive, Jim Hackett said the auto maker is rethinking how customers are going to want to use self-driving vehicle technology.

The Dearborn, Mich., auto maker is among car makers and tech companies racing to develop technology that would create autonomous cars. Under previous CEO Mark Fields, Ford aimed to have a fully self-driving vehicle commercially available in 2021 for ride-hailing services.

Mr. Hackett, in an interview on Thursday during a Ford-sponsored symposium on the future of cities, reiterated the goal of having the technology ready in 2021 but said the company is reviewing how it might be deployed. His comments suggest Ford may be taking a different direction with autonomous technology than it did under Mr. Fields.

"The biggest leap is the nature of the human interpretation of using it, " said Mr. Hackett, who was wearing jeans and an Apple Watch. "If you think we're going to take the [autonomous vehicle] and just replace the station wagon, I don't believe that's what's going to happen. The AV will replace and do something that the station wagon can't do -- not just drive itself -- but other things."

He noted how the uses of computing technology have evolved in surprising ways, such as the smartphone being used to watch HBO.

"It's about aligning the technology to what the market wants it to do -- is it a new station wagon or is it an Uber vehicle?" he added. "We have work to do."

Mr. Hackett, 62, was named chief executive in May, after Ford's board ousted former boss Mark Fields for lacking a clear strategy to challenge new Silicon Valley rivals, such as Alphabet Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc., looking to redefine the car business.

Since becoming CEO, Mr. Hackett has been to Silicon Valley five times, he said.

A former office-furniture executive who until recently ran the auto maker's smart-mobility unit, Mr. Hackett is working to make Ford more nimble and to accelerate decision making. The company is undergoing a 100-day review of all its operations, an effort that Mr. Hackett hopes will help it better target new revenue and cost-savings opportunities.

As part of that review, Mr. Hackett said he has realized the importance of the infrastructure around self-driving vehicles, such as an operating system that allows everything to communicate to coordinate. "There's a marriage of the evolution of the technology of the vehicle and the evolution of the system it works in," he said. "In my 100-day review, I'm more convinced that the harmony of that is key to Ford."

Under Mr. Fields, Ford had aimed to roll out a fully autonomous car -- with no steering wheel or pedals -- by 2021, taking a different approach than other auto makers looking to phase in automated features more gradually within the next few years. Mr. Hackett also has noted that Ford is behind in other connected-car services, such as providing customers with over-the-air updates.

Mr. Hackett also inherited a relationship between Ford and the Trump administration that has been tense at times over issues including whether Ford builds its cars in the U.S. or overseas. Mr. Fields stepped back from the president's manufacturing council when he was removed as CEO at Ford in May. Ford didn't replace him with another representative on the council.

That council disbanded on Wednesday amid a broad backlash against President Donald Trump's response to deadly white-nationalist protests last weekend. On Thursday, Mr. Hackett and Ford Chairman Bill Ford issued a statement condemning the weekend's "displays of hatred and blatant racism."

The statement, which didn't criticize Mr. Trump, also said: "You can be assured that while Ford left the President's Manufacturing Council earlier this year, we also remain committed to working in support of policies that promote American manufacturing, economic prosperity, and safe and sustainable transportation."

Write to Tim Higgins at Tim.Higgins@WSJ.com and Christina Rogers at christina.rogers@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 17, 2017 17:24 ET (21:24 GMT)