The automaker and the environmentalist.
It’s not a mismatched-buddy movie.
It’s an effort to make transportation safer, cleaner and equitable.
Jim Farley and Mary Nichols are together leading a global team that includes some of the most innovative minds in business, technology and public policy with a plan to help shape the future — not just for the U.S. but the world.
“By advocating for policies that improve and equalize transportation in our cities and communities while protecting our personal safety and the planet, we can make a fundamental difference in people’s lives,” Farley, the Ford CEO, told the Free Press.
He is co-chair of the Commission on the Future of Mobility with Nichols, former czar of the powerful California Air Resources Board who is often characterized as a nemesis of the auto industry in her fight for clean air.
“I’m proud to be representing the auto industry in this effort — especially at a time when we are experiencing tremendous forces of disruption, from new technology to climate change,” Farley said. “We have a significant opportunity ahead, and I’m humbled and excited to be leading the charge alongside Mary Nichols and the other members of the commission.”
This is not a government group. It is not an industry group. It is a team built by a nonprofit with a history of collaborative projects that focus on energy and transportation policy in the U.S. By utilizing experience, research, the best knowledge available and the influence of powerful players who represent all interests, they hope to persuade policymakers to move forward on initiatives.
It is a subtle but often effective strategy behind the scenes. Policymakers and political leaders are seeking answers to these questions and this team will provide guidance. The group has a record of bipartisan success.
Flying taxis, fewer gas stations
The topics at stake include everything from battery-powered and driverless vehicles to connecting cities with technology and the impact of decisions on jobs, infrastructure and energy supply.
This commission is responding to a need for direction because so much change is happening so quickly. It’s not forward-looking. It’s now.
Because the future is here. In the U.S. and worldwide:
- Flying taxis are in production with multiple companies include Hyundai.
- Touchless delivery bots for packages and takeout are in production.
- Cities are setting deadlines for getting gas-powered vehicles off the road.
- Cities are limiting the building or expansion of traditional gas stations.
- Global automakers are setting targets for all-electric product lines.
- Driverless vehicles have no standard safety protocols.
- Governments are buying all-electric vehicles for fleet use.
- Cities have assigned parking and speed lanes for electric vehicles only.
- Cities in parts of the world allow only electric vehicles during certain hours.
- Countries are expanding use of renewable energy including solar, wind and water.
President Joe Biden has outlined a plan to invest in charging stations for electric vehicles and jobs to support the auto industry.
In Texas, a retired refinery worker named Randy Jones survived the Texas blackout by using his 2021 Ford F-150 Hybrid truck with Pro Power Onboard to heat his home and run his coffeemaker. His story went global as Ford made pickups available during the crisis.
And the all-electric 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E has been cited by Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas as a direct competitor to Tesla in response to sales already, as other automakers prepare to unleash new electric vehicles, too. Ford is scheduled to put an all-electric version of its popular F-150 on sale in 2022.
“We have to reenvision the way that we move people and goods across the globe,” said Nichols, who helped California reach greenhouse gas emissions targets ahead of schedule while the state economy flourished.
She said the team will rethink transportation policy in “a systemic, interconnected way.”
The commission has highlighted these issues as priorities:
- Energy resources: Supporting the shift to alternative fuels.
- Freight: Reviewing supply chain protocol and addressing the impact of delivery on emissions, technology and access.
- Data stewardship: Leveraging data collected from customer experience.
- Infrastructure: Creating new approaches for emerging trends and technologies.
- Passenger transportation: Evaluating the impact of new technologies and business models.
The commission is planning to host public events to build support for the effort, with research and advocacy done quarterly across the U.S., Europe and Asia.
Transportation is at a crossroads now, as roads and bridges crumble and electrical grids fail. Nations are creating rules designed to pivot from internal combustion vehicles to electric and hydrogen as an attempt to reduce air pollution.
This effort is about looking past silos and changing public policy together.
“Ford Motor Co. has been an iconic American leader,” said Robbie Diamond, CEO of SAFE, an organization that assembled the commission as part of its mission to enhance economic and energy independence through transportation changes.
“The economy we know today was brought about by Mr. Ford, when the first Model T rolled off the factory line. That changed the world with its affordability,” Diamond said. “The idea to work with Ford, which brought about the first revolution in mobility, in thinking about the next revolution is super exciting.”
SAFE and its Energy Security Leadership Council influenced the Energy Independence and Security Act, or EISA, of 2007; then-President George W. Bush in his 2006 State of the Union noted elements of a SAFE report, which were incorporated in the EISA of 2007. Then-President Barack Obama also cited members of the council in his 2013 State of the Union and proposed an Energy Security Trust Fund.
In working against dependence on foreign oil, SAFE earned endorsement from the Washington Examiner in November 2013 as worthy of bipartisan support. U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, solicited feedback on draft legislation and leaders from both parties worked together on SAFE initiatives.
‘There’s just no excuse’
Right now, the commission includes diverse viewpoints from the U.S., India, Korea, France, Sweden and the United Kingdom. The only other carmaker involved is Hyundai, representing a fully integrated business model that makes its own parts. Ford and Hyundai swept the 2021 North American Car, Truck and Utility Vehicle of the Year Awards.
Hyundai is represented by José Muñoz, global chief operating officer and CEO of the North America division. Commissioners also represent FedEx, Cox Automotive, QualComm, Goodyear Tire & Rubber, Ola technologies, Allianz, Arrival, Valeo, and Inside Straight Strategies, which focuses on sustainability and economic development.
Additional members may eventually join the current team of 16 commissioners.
“The commission is thinking big and thinking long term. These are not likely to be very specific policy changes that are going to happen in Michigan and affect people’s lives in the next few weeks,” said Jared Cohon, former president of Carnegie Mellon University and chairman of the National Academies Board on Energy and Environmental Systems.
“We’re looking at major drivers in the world and how we can get in front of those to best position ourselves. We’ve got driverless vehicles, vehicles that communicate with each other, the conversion from fossil fuels to electric vehicles and all of that. There’s the imperative of climate change and we need to position ourselves to respond to that more effectively than we have,” he said.
“Our public transportation doesn’t serve people effectively in many places. It can take two hours to get to some jobs. There’s just no excuse. And situations like this fall disproportionately on poor people. In Pittsburgh, and I’m sure Detroit, that means Black people. Things are also being driven by the impact of COVID, Black Lives Matter and racial reckoning … Things are all coming together at once.”
Cohon, one of the four co-chairs of the project, is an expert on vehicle technologies, renewable energy, energy efficiency and the electrical grid. He has worked with the federal departments of Energy, Transportation and Homeland Security.
“There’s also the impact of electric vehicles and the continued automation of manufacturing on employment in states like Michigan,” Cohon said.
The fourth co-chair is Thierry Mallet, CEO of Transdev, an international public transportation group based outside of Paris that operates bus, train, metro and tram systems in 17 countries. He does $1 billion in business in the U.S. alone.
“As a leading player in the transportation industry, I share the same objectives as the automotive industry to drastically reduce the carbon footprint of our activities,” Mallet told the Free Press. “I look forward to actively working in the commission with Jim Farley, and Ford, as well as with all the members of the organizations represented in the commission”.
While creating the commission has been in discussions for a year or so, the COVID-19 shutdown inspired fast-tracked planning and recruitment and allowed it all to come together. The first meeting was Feb. 12 by Zoom with the next planned for June, while subcommittees and teams will research and compile strategies in between.
This is not a group that wants ideas gathering dust on a shelf.
After 18 months, the goal is to produce recommendations that can be adopted.
“We don’t want to be sucked into day-to-day arguments but step back,” said Diamond, who founded SAFE in 2005. The group is funded by charities, private donors and companies. “Looking at the policy landscape around the world, there’s a willingness to advocate for these changes globally.”
This is about putting adversaries at the same table, for once.
“It’s fantastic that Jim Farley is co-chair and Ford is committed to this,” Cohon said. “I do think it says a lot about Ford, how forward-thinking they are, how committed they are to crafting a future that is equitable and sustainable. I think it’s consistent with Ford’s posture going way back.”
The work style Farley brings to the project is appreciated, participants said.
Cohon noted the concern Farley expressed about the potential for job loss and impact on families with changing technology.
‘Journey to fight’
Jason Grumet, founder and president of the Bipartisan Policy Center based in Washington, D.C., said, “It does say a lot about the future of the U.S. automobile industry that one of the leading CEOs feels like this is an effective use of his limited time. It demonstrates that the ambition to be involved in global mobility requires companies like Ford to think more broadly.”
“We are at a moment of global humility where no one thinks they have all the answers,” said Grumet, who serves on the commission. “Mr. Farley is unique in being very accessible and really interested in hearing what other people think, which is not always the trait of a leading national CEO.”
Diamond said Farley brings a vision that is bigger than the company and realizes at the moment there are more questions than answers.
“It was really thoughtful. He did not want to just talk about typical policy discussion about incentives and electrification. He focused on what impacts cities and their workers.”
Farley is fully immersed in the shift to all-electric vehicles, as are his competitors.
“The auto industry is at the edge of a profound transformation,” Farley said. “Bringing together diverse perspectives allows us to unlock new opportunities. … I look forward to working with Mary Nichols, who has been both a teacher and a leader on our journey to fight climate change and whose expertise will be invaluable as we work to solve these complex issues.”
Behind the scenes, Mitch Bainwol has watched these discussions unfold.
“Jim believes that we have a special moment now,” said Bainwol, chief government relations officer at Ford. “In the scheme of history, this is a really important time for change. At the end of the day, it requires a marriage of private sector commitment and public sector support.”
‘Lubricate the future’
Goals include providing access for people who have been left out of the mobility movement, he said. “The commission is about coming up with ideas to accelerate the future, to see if we can find a way to lubricate the future.”
The COVID-19 crisis sped up a public willingness to look at life differently and think more aggressively about possible solutions to everyday problems, commissioners said.
“Jim (Farley) has got a very defined vision for the future, both for the company and for the industry,” Bainwol said. “And Mary Nichols is the most famous environmental regulator in the world. She was an advocate for change and innovation long before it became cool. Now everyone is there. Having her be a part of this is a demonstration of the significance and potential to make a difference. She is thoughtful and deeply respected.”
Jared Blumenfeld, CalEPA secretary, called the commission “a critical partnership” that will support California’s pioneering agenda to provide equitable and sustainable mobility choices for all.”
Lessons learned can be put into action globally, he said. “Ford’s leadership role in the commission is greatly appreciated and is reflective of the company’s forward-looking support of California’s zero-emission goals.”
In order to survive, companies have to keep an eye on today while redesigning the business to navigate disruption, said analyst Dan Levy of Credit Suisse. “Ford, GM, Tesla, everyone is positioning themselves to think holistically about these shifts and the broader significance and working to position their business models for the future.”
Ford has a history of touting itself as an automaker that wants to find solutions to problems, and this commission work is a reflection of that ambition often credited to Executive Chairman Bill Ford, great-grandson of the company founder.
“If you look at the culture of Ford and, specifically, Bill Ford, this has his DNA all over it. He’s been at the forefront, pushing the environment as much as he could,” said Jeff Schuster, president of global forecasting at LMC Automotive.
“When you look at the auto industry versus regulators versus environmental groups — it has been contentious,” he said. “There are no guarantees this will come up with something that will work for everyone but it’s a start. You can’t get to the endgame without starting somewhere.”