Evolution of a Car Salesman

Bill Ford, Jr. today delivered a passionate speech about the need to transform the auto industry, the Detroit region, and the State of Michigan for the 21st century knowledge economy. But one simple sentence deep in Mr. Ford's remarks illustrates how the Great Lakes State has yet to seriously confront the scale of cost, effort, and change in thinking necessary to compete and win in the era of globalization.

Speaking on his company's long term goals, the executive chairman of Ford Motor Company said: "We want to transform ourselves into a leading-edge provider of sustainable personal transportation."

That's certainly a laudable goal, especially when it comes to pushing the boundaries of energy efficiency and innovation. Clearly there is money to be made researching, building, and selling better automobiles, particularly in the emerging markets of the developing world. Just look at Toyota's performance.

But Michigan and Detroit must think beyond the car if the true intention is to become a global center of transportation innovation. Personal transportation is just one segment of a much larger mobility market. Dozens of cities in the United States alone, for example, are studying and investing billions to build mass transportation options such as light rail systems, street car networks, and energy efficient buses.

The technologies are by no means perfected. Just getting the trains to run on time is a challenge in car-dominated Michigan, but ridership is up nonetheless.

Right now, however, American auto makers are basically ignoring the opportunity to apply their unique expertise, expand their product portfolios, and lead the mobility industry. Indeed, when asked whether public transit and private automakers can coexist, Mr. Ford responded: “There’s room for both.”

There sure is. Visionary manufacturers in Oregon aim to generate jobs and grow their business by turning out American made street trolleys.

Foreign countries like France and Germany strive to innovate faster and faster trains. Pittsburgh, Las Vegas, and Atlanta also are investigating high-speed trains. The question is who's going to develop, build, install, operate, and maintain them?

It's not that Mr. Ford doesn't grasp the dynamics of the challenge. Few auto insiders have done as much to promote a green business agenda and reinvent the industry for the modern era.

"Today, with climate change, soaring gas prices and billions of potential new customers waiting in developing markets, people finally understand that environmental sustainability is the critical issue for our future growth and prosperity," Mr. Ford told attendees at the Mackinac Policy Conference, an annual event sponsored by the Detroit Regional Chamber.

But the scale of change necessary demands thinking less like a car salesman and more like a mobility provider.

“We can transform ourselves into a leading center of technical innovation and sustainable mobility, but only if we act swiftly and boldly,” Ford added.

Click her to see the video of Mr. Ford's speech.