In Israel, Ford chief says car ‘revolution’ underway, disruption key to survival

Bill Ford speaks at a smart mobility conference, is set to inaugurate carmaker’s Tel Aviv research center

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Bill Ford, the executive chairman of the Ford Motor Company, at the EcoMotion conference in Tel Aviv, June 11, 2019 (Asaf Kliger)
Bill Ford, the executive chairman of the Ford Motor Company, at the EcoMotion conference in Tel Aviv, June 11, 2019 (Asaf Kliger)

Bill Ford, the executive chairman of the Ford Motor Company and the great-grandson of the US company’s founder, Henry Ford, said in Tel Aviv on Tuesday that in the “revolution” rocking the automobile industry, carmakers need to team up with startups to stay ahead of the game.

“It is all happening,” said Ford, 62. “Every piece of our business is changing. There isn’t one piece of our business that is recognizable or will be recognizable, compared to the past.”

The upheaval is driven by artificial intelligence, 3D printing and autonomous driving technologies, he said. It is all “changing the nature of what we think about mobility and transportation.”

Carmakers must encourage disruptors and startups, and join forces with them, Ford urged, speaking at the EcoMotion smart transportation conference in Tel Aviv. The pace and amount of change is “staggering,” and that is why no company can go it alone.

Bill Ford, the executive chairman of the Ford Motor Company speaking at the EcoMotion conference in Tel Aviv, June 11, 2019 (Asaf Kliger)

Ford is in Israel to inaugurate the carmaker’s new research center in Tel Aviv on Wednesday. In 2017, the US firm acquired Israel’s SAIPS AC Ltd., a developer of computer vision and machine learning algorithms, in a foray into the autonomous vehicle field. Ford will unveil additional details of the new center at an event on Wednesday.

The opening of the Ford center comes on the heels of the open innovation lab set up by Renault and Nissan in Israel to tap into technologies sprouting in the so-called Startup Nation. Israel, which has traditionally had no car manufacturing activities to speak of, has become an unlikely leader in technologies that look set to transform vehicles as we know them, with tech giants like Google and Intel, and car manufacturers including Honda, GM, BMW and Volkswagen, all scouting and investing in Israeli tech in this field.

Ford, currently on his first visit to Israel, said the ecosystem and energy he sees here are “fantastic,” noting particularly the “egalitarian” approach Israelis have.

“The lack of hierarchy here, I love that,” he said in a conversation with an interviewer at the conference. “I think that it sparks innovation. The European and American companies that tend to be more hierarchical unknowingly stifle innovation, but the fact that Israel has a lack of hierarchy makes it a really great place to start up and have your voice heard early on in the process.”

Ford’s great-grandfather Henry developed and manufactured the first automobile affordable for middle-class Americans, transforming the car from an expensive gadget into a practical way to move around. Henry’s Model T, introduced in 1908, has been identified as revolutionizing transportation.

His great-grandfather was an “original disruptor” who would have recognized that the world today is “changing dramatically,” Ford said.

Attendees of the EcoMotion smart transportation conference in Tel Aviv; June 11, 2019 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

Carmakers must, in general, foster a technology ecosystem in which disruption is encouraged and understand that they are not necessarily at the center of it, he said, while startups must be persistent in knocking on corporations’ doors

Ford started his career working on the assembly line at his great-grandfather’s firm, using an assumed name so that he’d get no special treatment, and worked his way through the various channels to the top.

What is happening in the industry today, he said, “is fascinating, I think it is the most exciting time in my career. I wish I was 20 years old again.”

In its first 100 years the automotive industry didn’t change much, undergoing a lot of “evolutions, but not many revolutions,” he noted.  But now, the startups that are able to integrate “all of this technology in a way that advances peoples lives, are going to be the companies that win,” and those that don’t anticipate change are “going to be consigned to the dustbin of history, and that doesn’t interest me at all.”

Ford added that his firm’s Argo self driving system is on track with competitors regarding time to development. But he emphasized that the firm wants to be completely sure the vehicles “are ready for prime time,” because mistakes can cost lives.

The firm is already holding pilots of its Argo system in cities around the world. Ford invested $1 billion in the Pittsburg-based Argo AI startup in 2017 in a bid to gain leadership in the autonomous vehicle field.

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