William Clay Ford Jr.

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It’s difficult to imagine anything as intractable as a Big Auto corporation with thousands of employees and shareholders, and they don’t get more venerable than Ford, birthplace of the Model T, brainchild of the namesake plutocrat who was sometimes a populist but just as often an employer of strike-breaking Pinkertons. It was Henry Ford, after all, who sold America its first set of wheels.

That legendary car maker is interested in reinventing itself as a “smart mobility” company, as Steven Levy learned while poking around the premises. In a smart Backchannel piece, Levy writes that old Hank’s great-grandson, William (Bill) Clay Ford, Jr., doesn’t fear Apple or Tesla, believing his own outfit can achieve bleeding-edge Digital Age greatness, that Detroit’s most famous name can compete with Silicon Valley and its EVs and ride-sharing and autonomous.

The opening:

Is the Ford Motor Company…pivoting?

Startups do it all the time, occasionally with seismic consequences. Android was originally conceived as an operating system for cameras. Slack began as a video game. Airbnb really was all about air mattresses. But none of these companies was a 113-year-old pillar of the economy, with 197,000 employees, billions of dollars spent on branding, and countless tons of metal emblazoned with the company logo rumbling along the world’s roadways. The mind reels at the notion that Ford — Ford! — would change directions like an angel-funded six-person SOMA venture switching gears after a failed app.

Yet that’s what the Ford Motor Company seems to be doing. Or at least that’s what I sensed when I attended a Ford media day in Dearborn, Michigan, last month. (It was a palate cleanser for 2016 events — CES, followed by this week’s giant Detroit Auto Show.) The point of the day was to emphasize Ford’s evolving strategy. Making cars will remain a big part of Ford, but the company is committed to an additional but vital business model, a high-tech effort based on “smart mobility.” This approach not only doesn’t focus on selling vehicles, but even embraces some instances where potential car owners might forgo a Ford, or any other vehicle, in their driveway. Part of the vision would even point people to public transit. Sounds like a sea change to me.

To confirm whether this is indeed an epochal moment, I tap the perfect source: William Clay Ford, Jr. He’s executive chairman (and a former CEO) of the company founded by his great-grandfather in 1903, and he’s altogether one the most intriguing figures in the auto industry; his weaves between anachronism and futurist qualify him for a cognitive DUI. Bill, I ask (Can I call you Bill?), is Ford attempting the biggest pivot of all time?

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