SOUTHFIELD, MI – Someday, Ford Motor Co. may be more than just a vehicle producer, Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. says.

“I’ve told my people many times, ‘Don’t assume we’re always going to be in the car business. We’re going to be in the transportation business, and it’s going to look very different 20, 30, or 50 years from now,’” Bill Ford tells journalists during a media dinner at the North American International Auto Show.

“It almost has to, I think, by definition,” he says. “The question is what will it look like, and how can we play in that game, and how can we help lead that change?”

The initial answer is a project dubbed “Mega-Cities,” as Bill Ford sees a future where car ownership may not be the ideal transportation solution.

The Mega-Cities project currently is under way in three international markets – Chennai, India; Cape Town, South Africa; and Bahia, Brazil. A smaller version of the project also is ongoing in Istanbul, Turkey.

While still in its “very early stages,” Bill Ford at a media dinner offers a glimpse of the project, noting it’s based on a simple theory.

“The notion is you don’t have to have ownership of a vehicle, you just want to get from point A to point B,” he says. “You may have a car, a bicycle, a moped, and we at Ford and others are going to help you do that.

Getting into a conventional vehicle may not be the best choice because (traffic) congestion is just horrific.”

Susan Cischke, senior vice president-sustainability, environment and safety engineering, also is involved in the project.

Cischke describes Mega-Cities as a “hub situation,” where Ford has information as to which mode of transportation is available and can be accessed by consumers via a portable device.

“(The device) would tell you what the cheapest form of transportation was,” she says. “You would wave a card over (the device) and you would be charged. We could have a whole transportation network.”

In areas where crime is an issue, the Mega-Cities transportation hubs would be secure and only accessible by members, where they could “enjoy a newspaper or cup of coffee,” Cischke says.

In poor cities, alternative forms of payment could be accepted at Ford’s transportation hubs, Cischke says, noting that in many developing countries cell phones are becoming a form of currency. “It’s just a whole new world we’re exploring.”

The Mega-Cities project doesn’t mean people won’t have the option to purchase a vehicle, says Bill Ford, noting vehicle ownership would “be one other choice.”

A version of the project eventually could make its way to the U.S., particularly in crowded East Coast cities, he adds.

Meanwhile, Bill Ford provides an update on the new “Transformation Advisory Council,” an initiative he announced in November to look outside the industry for answers to environmental sustainability.

Composed of senior Ford executives and “outside sustainability thought-leaders,” the council meets quarterly to explore solutions to society’s sustainability challenges.

Members outside the auto industry currently include:

  • Amory Lovins, chairman and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute and well-known thinker on resource use and the future of business and society.
  • Paul Hawken, an environmentalist, entrepreneur and best-selling author, who has dedicated his life to sustainability issues and the relationship between business and the environment.
  • Peter Senge, a leading authority on systems thinking and organizational learning. He is a senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the founding chair of the Society for Organizational Learning.

The auto maker hopes to add more members in the future.

“Ford has a long heritage of environmental innovation and a renewed commitment to finding solutions that work for everyone,” Bill Ford says.

“We also recognize it will take a collective effort to resolve these issues, and we plan to be a proactive participant in that dialogue.”

bpope@wardsauto.com