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How Bill Ford turned an automaker into a tech company

During a speaking event at the Computer History Museum, Ford Motor Company Chairman Bill Ford talked of tech and environmental responsibility.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

My perception of Ford Motor is probably similar to most people's. The Mustang was the hallmark car in the '70s. The company suffered the same malaise as other automakers in the '80s, while the '90s saw bigger and bigger SUVs. And, of course, there was the ever-present F-150, either seen as beat-up work truck or shiny suburban boat hauler.

Somewhere along the way Ford's trajectory changed, though, to the point where it is now leading the technology charge in vehicles.

I found out how it all changed from the horse's mouth, as it were, at a speaking event featuring Ford Motor Company Chairman Bill Ford. This event was held at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., and coincided with two other events that emphasized Ford's technology push.

The first event was the induction of Ford Sync into the Museum, a circuit board example that will sit beside other computing milestones such as Charles Babbage's Difference Engine, a Fairchild silicon mesa transistor, and the Apple Macintosh.

The second was the opening of Ford's Silicon Valley Lab in Palo Alto, Calif., announced earlier this year. The lab will let Ford Motor Company connect with technology companies in the San Francisco Bay Area, and provide a venue for startups to seek partnerships.

Bill Ford and John Hollar show off Sync, which was inducted into the Computer History Museum. Ford

Hosted by the Computer History Museum's President John Hollar, Bill Ford explained how his own environmentalism led to his company's investments in technology. Great grandson of Henry Ford, when Bill Ford joined his family's company board in 1988, he held strong environmental views that were not shared by other board members. Ford said that the rest of the board looked on him as some kind of "green Bolshevik," this being a time when SUV sales were proving extremely lucrative for automakers.

In 2001, Ford became CEO, a position he held until 2006, when Alan Mulally took over. Ford said that his interest during this era was to make Ford the fuel economy leader in every segment in which it competed. And he realized that technology was the only way to achieve this goal. At this point, he says that he wanted the company to be both a fuel economy and a technology leader.

However, a company with a 100-plus year history and more than 200,000 employees does not change overnight. And not without a lot of money. Ford described how he and Mulally made the decision to borrow $26 billion in 2006, even mortgaging the company logo, in order to initiate this technology push.

The results of that initiative were on display during the event in the Museum's lobby and parking lot. Demonstration modules showed off the latest version of Sync, with its voice-command control over cell phones and MP3 players, and its app integration. Beyond convenience technologies, the Ford Focus Electric and the Ford C-Max plug-in hybrid were on hand to show off Ford's electrification efforts, which go toward Bill Ford's environmental interests.

Ford Focus electric
Ford had its Focus Electric, Fusion Hybrid, and C-Max plug-in hybrid on display. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Another point brought up by Ford in the talk, exposing a founding principle of the company, was the idea of making technology available in its entire range of vehicles. Because someone can only afford a Fiesta does not mean they should be barred from getting the latest useful tech features.

Similar to that is the effort to make the technology easy to use. Ford said that he wanted to "make tech in cars as intuitive as turning on the radio." In many ways, Ford cars demonstrate this principle, such as the company's excellent automatic parallel parking feature. But the original MyFord Touch interface showed that the rush to new tech features sometimes overruns the usability principle.

One casualty of this move to more tech, noted Ford, was that drivers are losing a once close relationship to their cars. Spending a Saturday changing the oil and gapping spark plugs leads to a bond with a car that gets lost with modern cars, which either have to be serviced by a certified mechanic or just do not require this level of maintenance.

I might disagree with this last point. Although many of us will find no need to ever open the hoods of our shiny new cars, drivers have shown appreciation for new, high-tech features. The Prius, with its revolutionary hybrid drive system, produced a near cult around a car that is about as appliance-like as they come. Similarly, early adopters of electric cars are likely to look on their zero-emission vehicles as a point of pride and a statement about their own priorities.

Bill Ford appeared as part of the Computer History Museum's Revolutionaries series on June 18. A videotape of the talk will be broadcast by public television station KQED. Check the KQED site for the schedule.