Ford CEO As Car Industry Critic

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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.”

Farley hinted at one concrete snippet of news: This quarter Ford (F) 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 (DPZ) 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.

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