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Bill Ford On Talking Cars, Clashing With His Company And More

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BILL FORD TED 2011
James Duncan Davidson / TED

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- This year, Ford unveiled its first all-electric car. Yet Bill Ford, executive chair of Ford Motor Company and the great-grandson of Henry Ford, recalled that the company once sought to quash his passion for the environment.

"When I got back to Detroit, my environmental leanings were not exactly embraced by those in the company," Ford told audiences at the 2011 Technology Entertainment and Design, or TED, conference. "There were some within Ford who believed that all this ecological nonsense should just disappear and that I should stop hanging out with, quote, 'environmental wackos.'"

The company has changed course since then to prioritize the development of cars that rely on alternative fuel sources, though Ford acknowledged that challenges remain in convincing consumers to swap to eco-friendly vehicles. He predicted that gas prices, which shot up near $5 a gallon in some parts of the country in 2008 and are beginning to tick upward again, will be the most powerful force convincing drivers to switch to hybrid and electric cars.

"As fuel prices continue to rise, people will care more and more about fuel economy," Ford told The Huffington Post. "Fuel economy doesn't just have to mean small cars. Even with our big pickup trucks, we're introducing fuel economy measures to make them far more fuel efficient because some people will still need work trucks. It's important not just to have a few niche vehicles that are fuel efficient, but we need to put the technology across the whole vehicle line."

Though he noted the importance of green car technologies and the progress being made in developing eco-friendly vehicles, Ford dedicated most of his TED talk to another issue he said threatens to undermine our way of life and access to crucial goods and services: "global gridlock," the over-crowding of roads, highways, parking garages and more.

"We're on our way to solving the one big issue that threatens us," Ford said of environmental efforts. Next, he said, the world must turn "all our effort and ingenuity to solve this issue of global gridlock."

According to Ford, the number of cars worldwide will increase from 800 million today to between 2 and 4 billion by 2050. This drastic shift will imperil our "freedom to move effortlessly around the world," Ford said, noting that Americans, who already spend an average of one week per year stuck in traffic, will likely pass even more time bumper to bumper as more cars crowd roads.

"We have gotten very used to this incredible freedom of mobility, but that freedom is going to be compromised if we can't figure out how to move people and goods around in a very constrained world," he said. "It's not just freedom of mobility -- that's certainly a quality of life issue -- but start thinking about [how we will be] moving food and moving medicine and providing health care. If that gets constrained, it's going to be a real problem for the world."

Ford described how the cars of the future should integrate new technology that could enable them to communicate with each other and with infrastructure to help mitigate the effects of vehicle overpopulation. "Very soon, we will see the days where cars are essentially talking to each other," he said. "We are going to build smart cars, but we also need to build smart roads, smart parking, smart public transportation systems and more."

Imagine a car, Ford said, that could communicate with a parking garage. While pulling out of the driveway, the car could reserve a parking spot at its final destination, saving time and fuel by eliminating the need to hunt down parking. This technology is "almost here," he said.

While Ford said it is all but impossible to predict all of the innovation the next decade will bring to bear, he said he appreciates the pace of change.

"It's hard for me to envision 15 years out because technology is coming at us so fast," he said. "If we were having this discussion a year from now, we'd be talking about things I don't even know about today. We need that kind of rate of improvement."

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