Ridiculed Bill Ford Is Laughing Now as Rival Carmakers Go Green

Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. faced ridicule and resistance over the years for suggesting the automaker his great-grandfather founded needed to go green to survive. And that was from inside his own company.

The 53-year-old scion will roll out three new electrified vehicles -- a battery-powered car, a plug-in model and a hybrid wagon -- today at the Detroit auto show, in what may be a validation of his vision.

When Ford joined the automaker’s board in 1988, his fellow directors considered him a “Bolshevik” for dubbing himself an “environmental industrialist,” he recalled. When he became chairman in 1999, he declared a “clean revolution,” only to see his executives oppose his efforts. While he rankled rivals by saying cars cause global warming, environmentalists excoriated him for failing to deliver on fuel-economy promises.

“The skepticism came from all comers,” Ford said in an interview on Jan. 6. “Our competitors used to love to laugh about the Ford green story. Those same people now are all falling all over themselves to see who can be greenest, which I find amusing.”

The Dearborn, Michigan-based automaker’s new Focus Electric car, C-Max Energi plug-in and C-Max hybrid wagon follow the U.S. sales debuts last month of General Motors Co.’s Chevrolet Volt plug-in and Nissan Motor Co.’s battery-powered Leaf. Toyota Motor Corp. also is introducing a new lineup of Prius hybrid models at the Detroit show.

‘Head in Sand’

Automakers are finally getting his message, Bill Ford said.

“Our industry had its head in the sand,” he said. “It was bereft of a vision for where it should go. It was important to signal that we understood, at least Ford understood, I understood, society’s concerns and we were going to go to work to try to address them.”

Ford was a lonely voice in his company in the late 1990s in support of environmental sustainability and fuel efficiency. Back then, the Ford Explorer sport-utility vehicle was king of the road and gasoline was less than $1.50 a gallon. His executives scoffed when he issued a press release pledging “customers can have any vehicle they want, as long as it is green.”

“Bill wanted to do it, but nobody else did,” recalled John Wolkonowicz, a former Ford product planner who consulted with him in those days. “He was getting a lot of pushback.”

Unfulfilled Pledge

He fought attempts to kill off a hybrid version of the Ford Escape SUV, which was introduced in 2004 and was the first gasoline-electric model from a U.S. automaker. Still, when Ford failed to deliver on a promise to boost SUV fuel economy by 25 percent, environmentalists responded with ads that caricatured him as Pinocchio.

“Perhaps some of the things I said were before the technology was in place to fully deliver it,” Ford said. “But it was important to raise the issue.”

His company now sells three hybrid models: the Escape and the Ford Fusion and Lincoln MKZ sedans. The Focus Electric is slated to begin sales late this year, with the C-Max Energi and C-Max Hybrid set for 2012.

And environmentalists are embracing him again.

Bill Ford deserves a lot of credit for starting this,” said David Friedman, deputy director of the vehicle program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington. “They were the first to put out a domestic hybrid and they put out a family-car hybrid with the Fusion that beat Toyota. That in itself is incredibly impressive.”

Cultural Change

What’s most impressive is that Ford managed to finally change his company’s culture to make fuel economy a priority, Friedman said.

The turning point came when Ford replaced himself as chief executive officer by hiring Alan Mulally from Boeing Co. in 2006, Friedman said. “It’s a credit to him that he knew he needed help and he got it.”

With Mulally as his ally, Bill Ford set a strategy to have the best fuel-efficiency rating in every vehicle category in which the automaker competes. That has required billions of dollars to overhaul engines and transmissions, as well as transforming plants that had made SUVs to produce cars. The three new electric models will be built in a Wayne, Michigan, factory where Ford once manufactured Lincoln Navigator SUVs.

“We’ve placed a big bet on fuel economy,” Ford said. “We’ve taken a point of view that gasoline prices over time certainly will get higher and customers will start voting with their wallets.”

‘Wrong Direction’

So far, consumers are hesitant to do that. Ford already is selling more fuel-efficient cars, yet hybrids accounted for just 1.8 percent of its U.S. sales last year. Industrywide, hybrids fell to 2.4 percent of the U.S. market from 2.8 percent in 2009.

“Hybrids are heading in the wrong direction,” said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst with research firm IHS Automotive in Lexington, Massachusetts. “We have this disconnect between the need for alternate-power vehicles and consumers who are satisfied with traditional vehicles.”

The need for electrified vehicles is being driven in part by U.S. regulations that require automakers to boost average fuel economy by company to 35.5 mpg in 2016, from 25 mpg now.

Broader acceptance of electric cars will require more government action, Bill Ford said.

“It’s critical that as a nation we have an energy policy that really decides to focus on electricity,” Ford said. “We can provide all the hardware, but unless there’s ubiquity of plugging, where you can plug in at the mall and at work, then we’re not there yet as a nation.”

Plug-In Promise

Outlets are important because plug-in hybrids show the most promise, he said. The C-Max Energi plug-in can go more than 500 miles on a full charge and a full tank. The Focus Electric, which has no gasoline engine, needs to recharge at least three hours at a special 240-volt station after driving 100 miles or less.

“The plug-ins are the most liberating because they take away range anxiety,” Ford said. “A pure electric, you run it down and that’s it, you’re out of juice.”

Electricity will eventually replace fossil fuels to power vehicles, and the current efforts may someday be seen as the turning point, he said.

“This is really the first shot at the mainstream customer,” Ford said. “The day I had always believed would come has arrived.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Keith Naughton in Southfield, Michigan, at Knaughton3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jamie Butters at jbutters@bloomberg.net

Press spacebar to pause and continue. Press esc to stop.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.