QOTD: Are We Being Too Hard on Jim Hackett?

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You might as well call this post “QOTD: Devil’s Advocate Edition.” I was prepared to feel furious by the time Ford CEO Jim Hackett’s Thursday appearance at the Midwestern Governors Conference wrapped up, and there was good reason why. The subject of the conference involved that dreaded word: mobility.

How will automated technologies change the way we live? That’s what participants wanted to talk about, and you can bet that Hackett was front and center, gabbing about his favorite topic. How will technology alter the way we travel, the way we drive? The hashtag #MGASmartland filtered through my Twitter feed. Certainly, the talk had all the makings of something I’d find depressing. Time to find that red Barchetta and a barn to hide it in.

It didn’t help that the first Hackett quote I saw emerge from the conference was a tired trope urbanists (read: car haters) trot out on a regular basis.

I hear this kind of sentiment from people who believe that as soon as cars switch from human operators to autonomous brains, they’ll disappear from streets. Sure, they’ll still exist, and they’ll still take us everywhere, but because we aren’t actively driving them anymore, the roads will become deserted playgrounds for downtown-dwelling hipsters. There’ll be grass and flowers and bikes. Cars will become ghosts.

That self-driving Uber or Lyft or whatever doesn’t up and go away after you emerge from its soothing confines at your destination. It goes off in search of the next passenger. And hundreds and thousands and millions of other four-wheeled, real, physical cars will do the same. Yes, we’ll still need roads. And those roads will carry self-driving cars and transit buses (electric or ICE) and the delivery trucks that form the backbone of local commerce. Drones are fun, but Amazon won’t delivery your refrigerator or dinette set by drone or bike. The cities of yesteryear were not grassy fields, and the roads of the future won’t become popular hangouts for picnickers.

Yes, Hackett’s quote angered me. It was catnip to the historical revisionist wing of the urbanist set, the type of people who want to believe the roads and streets of 1900 weren’t dangerous, fetid quagmires of mud and horse shit, plied by wagons and trolleys, omnibuses and carts, with the main form of propulsion being a large, heavy animal that defecates everywhere, spooks easily, and wouldn’t hesitate to trample you to death.

Malls came, true. And with it, parking lots and streets crowded with a single type of vehicle, and interstates grew increasingly choked in and around urban centers. All true. But visit the downtown of any city and you’ll still see sidewalks and stores with doors that open onto said sidewalk, plus parks and squares that date to Civil War times.

Here’s the thing, though. Hackett’s vision of a future city (Ford employs a VP of City Solutions and a team to back him up) is compelling from a technological standpoint. The CEO’s plan for a cloud-based “transportation operating system” (officially, Transportation Mobility Cloud), working along the same lines as a computer, is designed to ease congestion and improve travel times in major cities. Hackett truly believes Ford can bring about this second revolution in how we travel, and it’s turning plenty of gearheads off. It seems he doesn’t want to talk about the thing most people want to hear: how will you improve the F-150? It’s also possible that this futuristic vision, and Hackett’s intense focus on it, is the reason Ford’s stubbornly declining stock price won’t reverse course. To his credit, Hackett (briefly) acknowledged all of this in his talk.

Autonomous vehicles, like those envisioned by urbanists and tech writers, are further away than we realize, he said. No one solution will solve our inner-city travel woes, Hackett admits. We’re not China. Okay, that’s encouraging to hear.

It’s possible this writer wrongly conflated Ford’s City of Tomorrow with a dull future where human-powered cars are banned or so restricted in travel that they’re not worth owning. Maybe. But Hackett doesn’t exactly go out of his way to reassure car (and personal freedom) lovers, and that’s a problem.

If you’ve got time, watch the video I’ve linked to at the top of this piece. Decide for yourself. What I’m asking today is, are we wrong to distrust Hackett and his vision? Is it a unwarranted, knee-jerk reaction based on a fear that going Hackett’s route ends in a dead end for personal vehicle ownership? Should we cut the guy some slack?

[Image: Ford Motor Company]

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