Why Ford refuses to dismiss Tesla as an autonomous driving competitor

At the sixth annual Further with Ford conference, executive chairman Bill Ford spoke about what he learned from time in the Valley and why Ford shouldn't dismiss Tesla.


Andy Serwar from Yahoo News interviews Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford, at the 6th annual Further with Ford Conference.

Image: Hope Reese/TechRepublic

At Ford's World Headquarters in Dearborn, MI on Tuesday, executive chairman Bill Ford spoke to a room of hundreds of auto insiders and journalists about how the company is transitioning in a time of uncertainty across the industry. In his keynote at the 6th annual Further with Ford conference, Ford, interviewed by Andy Serwer, editor in chief of Yahoo Finance, talked about lessons from the time he spent in Silicon Valley, why culture is critical,, and how Ford stacks up with tech companies in the driverless car space. Here are the takeaways.

Lessons from the Valley: Partnerships and company culture

"The landscape is dynamic and exciting," said Ford. "So what does that mean for us? We have to be open to partnerships." Ford went on to outline the company's increased presence in Silicon Valley, and its efforts to convince entrepreneurs to join Ford.

Henry Ford served on the board of eBay for 11 years. "The dynamism and flow of ideas was so compelling that, to me, it was logical that one day it was going to be applied to our industry," he said. But the auto companies, he said, "bring a lot more strengths to the autonomous driving world" than some in the tech world expected.

"We have a lot more technology than perhaps they were aware of. Also, we know how to integrate that technology into a vehicle in a way that they don't have any experience with." he said. Just a few years ago, the conversation shifted, Ford said, to one that recognizes the technology automakers bring to the table.

"We can integrate that technology into a vehicle," he said, "in a way that the customer can value. And building a vehicle with quality and technology is something that's a lot harder to do than people thought."

SEE: Ford plans to mass produce a 'no driver required' autonomous vehicle by 2021 (TechRepublic)

The importance of culture

"In Silicon Valley, it was dynamic, it was fun, it was interesting--but most of the companies didn't have a corporate culture," he said. "The minute they see a shiny new toy, your employees are leaving you in droves for either more pay or more interesting work, or to be part of a winning team."

Ford believes the culture at his company helped them through their "dark period."

"The reason we survived and others didn't was the culture of our company. and the way our employees responded," he said. "They love this company." He received a flood of letters from employees who didn't want the company to give up. "Normally, those messages are from the top down, not bottom up," he said.

"I think that's something a lot of the Valley firms don't have. I've actually had a couple of them ask me to come talk to their employees about the importance of culture," he said. "The hard part is that a company doesn't require a culture. It's behavior that you live every day that really resonates."

Ethical hurdles in developing autonomous technology

Ford acknowledged that "the technology is here" in the world of autonomous driving. But there are "a lot of things to work through," he said.

SEE: Tesla's Master Plan 2.0: AI experts, auto insiders, and Tesla customers weigh in (TechRepublic)

Specifically, Ford believes the ethical issues around autonomous driving are not discussed enough--dovetailing with a common theme of the conference--safety. Cars make decisions quickly, he said.

"They will have the ability to make decisions that you and I, as reactive drivers, wouldn't necessarily make. That's going to require some very deep and meaningful conversations as a society, in terms of how do we want these vehicles to behave, whose lives are they going to save. No one company is going to settle that."

Tesla, arguably the most advanced company in the autonomous driving sphere, has been frequently alluded to throughout the conference. The fatality of Joshua Brown has been unspoken, yet hinted at, especially in juxtaposition with Ford's stated emphasis on safety and caution. And, Tesla's price tag has also been referenced--in the "who can afford a $100K car" way. Sewar, finally, named the competitor outright.

"Is Tesla for real?" Sewar asked Ford.

"Yes. We have something to learn from every competitor," Ford said. "The one thing I'll never do is dismiss a competitor in our space."

It's a fluid world, he said, and Ford needs "a learning mindset, not a defensive one."

SEE: When will we get driverless cars? Experts say public opinion is the critical factor (TechRepublic)

It's an important point, especially since Ford's customers are not likely to be the early-adopters of the new technology that Tesla has won over.

"With any new technology, how you present it to the customer is critical," said Ford. "We worry about technology being introduced and our customers freaking out."

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