Don't get your hopes up for seeing swarms of flying cars in 30 years, cautions Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford Motor and one of the leading visionaries in the auto industry.
But he sees developments in the future of ground transportation over the next three decades that will be just as exciting: a world in which cars will run on electricity, hydrogen or other energy alternatives and will be interconnected with smartphones in ways that make getting from one place to another more efficient and safer than ever.
"I can't wait. I think it's exciting," says the 55-year-old great-grandson of founder Henry Ford, who revolutionized ground transportation in the 20th century. "It once again is an opportunity to make people's lives better."
Bill Ford has a track record of forward-thinking. He was an early auto industry advocate for environmentalism in the 21st century, at a time when automakers were addicted to sales of ever-growing SUVs.
As Ford Motor's CEO from 2001 to 2006, William Clay Ford Jr. -- whom just about everyone calls Bill -- put his ideas into practice. The company made a success out of a hybrid version of its popular compact SUV, the Ford Escape.
It transformed its huge River Rouge plant in Dearborn from a symbol of American industrial decline into a modern showplace, complete with a "living roof" of plants that also is part of a rainwater collection and treatment system.
Now, from a spacious, wood-paneled corner suite atop Ford Motor's international headquarters a few miles from downtown Detroit, Ford sees environmental concerns merging in the next 30 years with another long-term challenge for the auto industry: urban mobility.
The world's megacities -- urban centers of population 10 million and more -- will grow in number and become increasingly crowded, forcing huge changes in how and when people drive, Ford says.
"The way we move people is going to have to change dramatically," he says. The car will become just another "interconnected asset" in cities, along with buses, trains, taxicabs, bikes, Segway-style personal transporters -- and feet, he says.
People will use smartphones or other mobile devices to switch from one mode to another with easy connections, Ford predicts.
He also sees people using these devices to help manage every other aspect of commuting and travel -- far beyond just traffic reports or reserving and being directed to an empty parking space in a crowded downtown.
Workers will be able to mesh their personal calendars in their smartphones with their tech-loaded cars. That way, the car will know their daily commute and travel schedule and pick the most efficient routes for a given destination and time.
"You can bring your entire life into the vehicle," Ford says.
Even your health issues. Ford Motor engineers have been tinkering with systems that monitor pollen counts for asthma sufferers and heartbeats for heart patients. Bill Ford thinks cars that keep track of your health could become a reality.
He also believes that despite a proliferation of other forms of mobility, he can safely predict that cars in some form are here to stay. And gasoline engines? Yes, they'll still be around in 30 years, but Ford says they might not rule the day.
The fuel of the future, he says, isn't clear -- and more likely it will be a mix of technologies, including:
Electrification. The transition from the internal combustion engine will take many paths as hybrids, plug-in hybrids or pure electric-battery-powered cars will take a larger role in the industry.
"Electrification is where a lot of us are placing big bets," Ford says. And he believes that batteries -- the most critical cost factor in electrified vehicles -- will get better and cheaper.
Hydrogen fuel cells. There's a role for hydrogen power, but not as much of one as once thought, he says. Five years ago, states such as California were talking about building a "hydrogen highway," he says. "Who is talking about that now?"
Biofuels. They remain "interesting," he says.
Nuclear power. In the 1950s, Ford engineers actually built a model of a nuclear-powered concept car. Of course, the idea never went anywhere. But Bill Ford points out that if America embarks on a new round of nuclear-power plant construction -- an idea he isn't ready to endorse -- electric cars would indirectly be atomic-powered.
But despite the variety of fuels and transportation modes, Ford thinks flying cars won't get off the ground, even though one start-up has promised to have a flying car in production in the next year.
"I'm not normally a skeptic about new technology," he says. But in this case, the need for a pilot's license in addition to a driver's license wipes out all but a handful of potential buyers. And it probably wouldn't be very good, either as a plane or a car, he says. "There are too many compromises on both sides."
When it comes to gee-whiz technology, Ford says it's more likely that cars might be able to drive themselves, or at least play a larger role in the driving. Google, for instance, has been experimenting in the Nevada desert with a self-driving Toyota Prius.
Ford hesitates, however, to try to predict when such technology will become practical and affordable. "Autonomous driving will be possible," he says. "But there is a lot that has to happen between now and then in terms of standards.
"But will it be possible? Certainly."
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