Ireland has a huge role to play in the future of Ford

On his recent visit to Cork to mark the centenary of Ford in Ireland, Henry’s great-grandson outlined his dreams and visions.

Business genius Henry Ford — founder of the mighty motoring empire — once remarked that entrepreneurs “ought to think of their business by day, and dream of it by night”.

He would have been proud, then, to see his great-grandson visiting the land of their ancestors last month, as he outlined his own dream for the future of the enduring company.

William Clay Ford Jr, Executive Chairman of Ford Motor Company, visited Cork to mark the centenary of the business in Ireland — and as well as looking back with pride on his company’s achievements, he showed himself to be a man with a vision.

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, said Mr Clay Ford Jr, 59. He compared it to the early days of car manufacturing where people could try anything and there was a “wild west” approach to industry.

“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.

“In time, we will have an autonomous electric fleet of vehicles on the roads. They will make people’s lives better, they will free up traffic and stop pollution.

“Artificial intelligence will drive not only the vehicles but 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. It’s all very interesting and it’s all very cool.”

Among the vehicles his company is currently developing is a computerised 14-seater Transit van called a Chariot. It will link up online with other transport networks such as trains and trams and bring those 14 people from door to office to door again — freeing up a potential 13 vehicles from the road.

Mr Clay Ford Jr said driverless technology would also mean no more elderly people losing their licence and no more drink-driving, but it posed great ethical questions.

“In the event of an accident, vehicles will be able to be programmed to choose which pedestrian they will injure — or will they crash the car, injure the person inside and save the pedestrian? Imagine if Ford made one decision on ethics like this and Toyota made another — a nightmare scenario.”

He said the fact that many cities were now nearly uninhabitable because of traffic jams made autonomous vehicles a priority, as urban populations continue to grow.

“We have to get vehicles off the road, it’s a fool’s errand to think more cars are needed. The goal is renewable fuel and electrification. Vehicles could even create water through air conditioning condensation.”

William Clay Ford Jr, Executive Chairman, Ford Motor Company, with his family, and management and staff of Henry Ford & Sons Ltd, Boreenmanna Road, Cork, last month.

Using the mobile phone as an analogy, Mr Clay Ford Jr concluded: “If we as a company don’t get this right, we become the handset.”

Mr Clay Ford Jr said Ireland is well-placed to benefit from the huge challenges ahead.

Asked if car manufacturing was gone forever from Cork, he replied: “Not necessarily gone, but the future is more software than hardware and that’s where Ireland can tap into. Ireland should look forward to software and IT, not backward to hardware and manufacturing."

“It is really well positioned. As manufacturing becomes more efficient, the need for a huge manufacturing footprint is different to when my great-grandfather opened a plant here. 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 increasingly IT and software — those types of skills.”

The remarks, made at a UCC lecture in his honour, provided a fascinating insight into the direction the motor industry is taking.

The day before, on a visit to Ballinascarthy in West Cork, ancestral townland of the Ford family, Mr Clay Ford Jr spoke about the recent decision by Cork-based global tech company Apple to enter the motor market and begin testing driver-less vehicles.

“We are willing to take on all comers,” he declared. “We would rather be friends, but we are willing to punch it out if we have to.”

Such an intriguing battle pits the two big beasts of Cork’s industrial jungle past and present. Ford employed 7,000 in the Marina in Cork at one stage in the 20th century, while Apple is the city’s biggest employer in the 21st century.

However, Mr Clay Ford Jr didn’t rule out linking up with Apple as companies around the world race to develop autonomous vehicles.

“There is an equal possibility these competitors could become collaborators. The scenario has yet to play out. We will see lots of alliances, we may compete with them on one front and co-operate on another. I don’t rule anything out. One thing is for sure, we are here for the duration.”

William also addressed the great economic challenge for Ireland — Brexit — admitting it was “concerning” and “on balance, would not be good” for his company.

“It has an impact on our business and to the extent that it inhibits free trade, that’s not a good thing,” he said. “Free trade is what we all need to work towards. We live in an inter-connected world, we at Ford manufacture all around the world, we sell all around the world and have suppliers from all around the world. We can’t unscramble the egg.

William Clay Ford Jr at the old ancestral home near Ballinascarthy, with his Cork-based relative Hazel Forde Buttimer.

“But Ford Motor Company is 114 years old and we’ve been through so many taxation regimes and we not only survive, we thrive.”

The motor boss spoke of his pride in his roots. “Henry left us a great company but, more importantly, he left us a set of values and a set of ethics that guide us today,” he added. “America doesn’t value history so well like Ireland does. Every time I come I am struck by this sense of history, people value it. I feel Irish, the spirit of Ireland is something I try and embrace every day.

“The Irish are survivors and fighters and have a sense of humour. No matter how difficult things got for Ford — and things did get tough — I never lost that.

“The history of Ford is so unique and we have touched so many lives.” AT a dinner for former Ford employees at Cork City Hall during his visit, Mr Ford Jr said the company wouldn’t be where it is today without their hard work.

“Every single pensioner here, thank-you so much for all you have done. Because of you, we’re a great company,” said Mr Clay Ford Jr. “It’s you who built this company. I couldn’t be more proud of the contribution Ford has made to Ireland and to Cork.”

THE history of Ford in Cork is being celebrated at an exhibition at the library on the Carrigrohane Road in Cork city.

Ford — the Cork Connection, launched last month by County Mayor Cllr Seamus McGrath, focuses on various aspects of the Marina plant and is both educational and thought-provoking.

It was compiled using the resources of Cork County Library’s Local Studies section. The exhibition will run until May 26, Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.