Ford Chairman: Car manufacturing on cusp of greatest change

The car manufacturing industry is on “the cusp of the greatest change” it has ever seen as artificial intelligence and driverless cars become a new reality.

A packed lecture theatre in UCC as William Clay Ford launched a new scholarship. Picture: Andy Jay

That is the view of executive chairman of the Ford Motor Company William Clay Ford Jr, who was speaking in University College Cork (UCC) to launch a new scholarship.

Mr Ford said the industry was going through the most exciting and greatest period of change in over a century. 

He compared it to the early days of car manufacturing where people could try anything and there was a “wild west” approach to industry.

Students from the Talented Student Program at UCC, l-r Ciara Judge and Sarah Jameel from Sri Lanka are interviewed by Gina London. Picture: Andy Jay

“Guess what? This is where we are now. Our world is going to change dramatically driven by technology. The notion of self-driving cars — it’s coming and it’s coming fast. 

"The idea of individual ownership of cars, that’s changing dramatically even as we are sitting here.

“Artificial intelligence which will drive not only the vehicles but actually the companies themselves, how things are made and how customers are interacted with. 

"That’s going to become a core competence of a company that wants to stay relevant in the very near future. 3D printing, all these things are going to have a tremendous impact on our business and it’s all very interesting and it’s all very cool,” he said.

Mr Ford said a range of new competitors were entering the automotive space and not all will be successful.

He also spoke of his belief that, in time, Ford will develop an autonomous electric fleet of vehicles.

“We see competitors now that we have never seen before. Apple is a big employer here and Apple is coming to our space. Google is in our space. Lots of start-ups are coming into our space. 

"It is, again, like the beginning of the auto industry and also, like the beginning of the auto industry, it’s unknown who the winners and the losers are going to be. And that will be known, I think, only in about 10 years,” he said.

Mr Ford said that ethics increasingly had a role to play in how the vehicles of the future operate and said universities had a key role in this discussion.

“If you think about autonomous driving, there are going to be ethics associated with that that I know the world hasn’t really discussed yet.

“For instance, these vehicles will have the ability to make decisions that you and I as a driver can’t make. If we see an accident all we can do is react and hope for the best. We can try and get ourselves out it.

“The vehicles, though, will have such computing power that they will actually be able to choose which pedestrian should I hit or do I actually crash the car and injure the occupant to save the pedestrians? 

"These are ethical questions that I think need a lot of discussion and universitys can lead the way,” he said.

Speaking about jobs, Mr Ford said increasingly information technology and software were the types of roles that the Ford company were seeking out.

“Ford jobs of the future — we will always make things, but how we do it will change dramatically and the kind of skills that we need are in — creasingly IT and software — those types of skills. 

"Ireland is incredibly well positioned because of that as Ireland has long been a leader in IT and software development.

“We have traditionally needed hardware skills with a little bit of software. That balance is changing as we are sitting here and there is a war for talent out there. 

"I think our education system, which Ireland is well ahead of, is going to have to change to meet that demand,” he said.

A female student on the Quercus innovation and entrepreneurship programme Mr Ford is sponsoring asked him about diversity in his company. 

She cited statistics that while 55% of millennial purchasers of Fords are women, just 12% of the board of directors are female. 

"She also asked how the company planned to promote more women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

In response, Mr Ford told the student she was “absolutely right” and that the company was working hard to bring more women through the ranks of what was traditionally a very male-dominated industry.

“We are working very hard to pull women through the ranks. The issue has been traditionally our feeder pool — manufacturing — in particular has unfortunately been a very male dominated industry and profession. Frankly, so has engineering in many respects. That’s the core of what we are.

“We have many more women on our staff and many more in marketing and sales but we are pushing STEM education very hard and we sponsor a number of women’s initiatives in education, particularly in STEM education. 

"We need young people and, particularly young women, who want to get into this field,” he said.

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