I’ve attended innumerable keynote addresses by top executives at technology conferences, but never a talk quite like the one Ford CEO Jim Hackett gave Tuesday morning at the annual CES conference in Las Vegas.
Most CEOs preside over whiz-bang demos with snazzy slides and the occasional celebrity to wow the nerds. Hackett instead cut an avuncular figure in a cardigan sweater vest, sat quietly and a bit hunched over on a tall chair, and shared his vision of the future of transportation.
That vision is bold if incredibly risky. It acknowledges that for all the genius of Henry Ford, whose groundbreaking business processes gave the world the freedom of the open road, his cars also brought parking lots, congestion, pollution, decrepit town centers and worse. “By enabling one kind of freedom we restricted another,” said Hackett, sounding very much like the corporate intellectual he is but also a bold radical, willing to speak truth to the power of his own adopted industry.
Hackett’s future relies not so much on cars as transportation “systems.” Indeed, that’s the word top executive Jim Farley used to describe Ford’s aspirations. “We’re stressing a systems-based approach,” said Farley, based on building an open-source operating system for transportation available to all companies and also a network of services that stresses Ford’s industrial-grade vehicles. Said Farley: “Any time you’re not carrying goods or people in this business you’re not making money.”
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Farley hinted at one concrete snippet of news: This quarter Ford will begin testing its self-driving network concept—he called it Ford’s new business model—in an unnamed city. It will build on insights from Ford’s existing delivery partnership with Domino’s Pizza and also will include a new initiative with San Francisco delivery startup Postmates.
If Farley and other Ford executives brought the broad outlines of the plan, Hackett is responsible for the ideas. He namechecked a variety of thinkers influencing his new-age concepts, including Janette Sadik-Khan, a transportation advisor to Michael Bloomberg; Designer Alex McDowell of the World Building Institute; and Geoffrey West, the complex systems theorist at the Santa Fe Institute. He brought onstage the Harvard ethicist Michael Sandel to conduct a Socratic exercise with the entire audience.
These aren’t the names most frequently referenced at a CES keynote.
Hackett noted he’s been on the job 220 days. As during the previous 219—including last fall, when I profiled Hackett in Fortune—the Ford CEO managed not to discuss how all this will affect the bottom line. That’s appropriate and forgivable at CES, an event meant to muse on the future. But I couldn’t help thinking that Hackett better hope there’s no recession any time soon. His vision might not survive one.
Get outta my dreams. Speaking of the future of the auto industry, Renault, Nissan Motor, and Mitsubishi Motors said they would invest up to $1 billion over five years in startups working on electric and self-driving cars, connectivity and artificial intelligence. Ionic Materials, a Massachusetts-based company working on cobalt-free solid-state batteries, got the first investment.
Chatty Cathy. Toyota said Tuesday that it plans to embed Amazon’s Alexa voice-controlled digital assistant in some of its Toyota and Lexus models this year. Some Toyota models currently use Apple’s Siri to control simple tasks liking making a phone call, but the Alexa feature will have the capability to give directions, read news, or even control Internet-connected home devices, the company said.
Are you kidding me? A bunch of tiny companies like Long Blockchain (formerly called Long Island Iced Tea) have seen huge stock price jumps after claiming to get involved in digital currency technologies. Now faded photo star Kodak is trying the same move. The company said it would create KodakCoin, a currency aimed at helping photographers better control image rights. And Kodak’s stock? It more than doubled to $6.80.
Cloudy forecast. Five months worth of confidential user data from Snapchat leaked to the Daily Beast showed some possible growth problems for the popular messaging service. Usage of the app’s new maps feature has declined and chatting dominating over the posting of stories, the news site reported.
Better forecast. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says it completed a massive upgrade to the supercomputers that take in weather data from around the world and churn out forecasts. The agency’s two supercomputer sites now have the power to calculate 8.4 petaflops, or quadrillions of calculations per second.
Streaming merger. Akamai Technologies, which runs a vast network to help companies distribute online content, is exploring “strategic alternatives” and may be sold, Bloomberg reported on Tuesday. Activist investor fund Elliott Management, which bought a 6.5% stake in the company, has been pressuring for such a move.
Pentagon papers. The Washington Post is doing just fine despite the continued pressure on media advertising. The paper owned by Jeff Bezos was profitable for a second year in a row and digital subscriptions more than tripled from last year, publisher Fred Ryan said in an email to the staff that was obtained by Axios.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Amid the criticism of Apple over kids’ excessive use of smartphones, a movement had already arisen among some in Silicon Valley to curb the ubiquitous mobile devices. Tripp Mickle in the Wall Street Journal explores the concerns and strategies of the anti-iPhone crowd. Some are trying to attack the problem from within, with specialized apps:
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BEFORE YOU GO
The pictures and videos of the snowfall that happened this week in the Sahara desert are magnificent. Some of the coverage may have been hyperbolic, however. “It’s rare, but it’s not that rare,” Rein Haarsma, a climate researcher at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, tells the New York Times. “There is exceptional weather at all places, and this did not happen because of climate change.”