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Bill Ford: It's a great time to be in auto business

Despite the grim economy, executive chairman of Ford Motor argues that new technologies and greater environmental awareness have enlivened the industry.

Bill Ford at Fortune Brainstorm Green conference. Martin LaMonica/CNET

LAGUNA NIGUEL, Calif.--Even though the U.S. auto industry has been badly weakened by poor decisions and falling sales, new technologies are bringing a new vibrancy to the industry, said Bill Ford, the executive chairman of Ford Motor.

In an effort to make more fuel-efficient vehicles, Ford Motor is placing its bets on a number of alternative technologies, including electric vehicles, biofuels, and clean diesel, Ford said during a talk at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference here on Monday.

Ford himself was integral in the company adopting sustainability and environmental awareness in its operations. He spearheaded the construction of the Rouge River factory, which adopted a number of techniques to minimize energy and water use.

Moving the company to cleaner technologies and environmental responsibility has helped Ford financially and motivated employees, Ford said. Many of the changes Ford adopted at Rouge River in Michigan made sense financially and its improvements into fuel efficiency have helped the company.

"I am so energized by what is going on now--it's fantastic. Not only is it the right thing to do but there's also all this cool technology being developed now," Ford said. "Not just in powertrains, but in safety, communications--it's a really cool time to be part of the industry."

Ford plans to bring small cars designed originally for congested cities in Europe to the U.S., he said.

"The downsizing of the fleet is going to happen. We at Ford are placing a big bet on that," he said. "It's a bet we're making because we believe that it's the right thing to do. Whether we get the timing right--don't know."

Over the years, the culture of the company has changed gradually to take the notion of environmental sustainability more seriously.

"When I joined Ford board in 1988, I was told I had to stop associating with any known or former environmentalists," he joked. At the time, Ford said that it was important for the company to have a dialogue with environmental groups.

To see tweets from the conference, see