04-21-2009, 03:23 PM
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William Clay Ford II Forecasts Bright Green Future For His Company
To hear Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman William Clay Ford Jr. tell it, developing the green vehicles that will be needed to break this country's dependence upon foreign oil will be the easy part.
The really tough stuff will involve gaining consensus on such touchy subjects as instituting a new federal gasoline tax and determining which technologies will get the nod as new electric-generating plants are designed, permitted and brought online.
"I actually think that the least disruptive piece will be the car piece," Ford said during a half-hour Q&A during a Fortune magazine green ideas conference on Monday at the Ritz Carlton in Laguna Niguel, Calif. "We can get there relatively easy, but a lot of these other pieces are going to be big issues that we're going to have to solve as a nation."
"One thing that I'm encouraged about is that the [Obama] administration really wants to lead that discussion on a national basis," Ford said. "I am optimistic ... we can't go on with fossil fuel burning the way we are ... it's just not a path that this country wants to go down."
In addition to green vehicles, the Fortune conference that runs through Wednesday is tackling such green concerns as environmentally friendly power plants, biofuels and climate change. On Tuesday, speakers from Johnson Controls, Inc., Zenn Motor Co.(one of its vehicles, right, was displayed at the conference) and Ener 1 Inc. will talk about "Building A Better Battery."
Ford (the chairman) didn't break any new ground on the green front for Ford (the company), which in March celebrated the 100,000th hybrid SUV rolling off of the line at its Kansas CIty assembly plant.
He repeated his company's belief that it wouldn't be wise to settle on a single green automobile technology: "There isn't one size, we don't think, that fits all." So Ford continues to pursue and monitor an array of technologies, including electric, biofuels, clean diesel, hydrogen and its Ecoboost gasoline turbo direct injection engines.
Ford instead has opted to build a select number of global platforms and make new technologies available across its models. Ford described the strategy as akin "plug-and-play" computer or electronics technology.
Speaking as a car guy, Ford said he's not worried about the Asian countries that are developing a big lead in manufacturing the advanced batteries that will be needed to power electric vehicles. Ford said his company is content to be "a customer," and that its challenge is "to stay on top of all these [technologies] and then integrate them into our vehicles."
But Ford also cautioned that the U.S. is "not well served" by allowing other countries to dominate advanced battery design and manufacturing.
Ford hit hard on the need for a gasoline tax or a cap-and-trade emissions scheme (or some combination of the two) that would give manufacturers and consumers "some predictability in terms of fuel-pricing."
"And we have to make that fuel price signal strong enough that the customer will end up desiring those vehicles that society is demanding," Ford said. He pointed to Europe, which years ago used gasoline taxes to prod auto companies to develop clean diesels - but also make the economics work for consumers.
Asking Washington, D.C. to legislate a gas tax without public support wouldn't be wise. "Ultimately the customer has to be part of the equation," Ford said, "because you're the ones shelling out money to buy the new cars."
Ford said the dramatic gasoline pricing swings of the past year or two underscore the risky nature of his company's "big bet" to downsize its domestic fleet by importing smaller, fuel-efficient (and cleaner) vehicles from Europe. He said that the downsizing will occur even if fuel prices manage to stay relatively low and consumer appetite for smaller vehicles is dulled.
"Long-term, it's the right thing to do," Ford said. "Do we get the timing exactly right (as far as fuel prices)? We don't know."
Ford acknowledged that the ride, at time has been bumpy, but he seems to be enjoying the ride.
"I think [green] is fantastic," Ford said. "Not only is it the right thing to do, but there's also all of this great technology ..."It's a really cool time to be part of this industry."
Though Ford answered a few questions from the audience, he laughed - and then ducked - the toughest one: Are the Detroit Lions (The Ford-owned NFL franchise that lost every game last season) sustainable.