The kick-off discussion here at Eco:nomics was with Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally. (Which you’d know if you were following my tweeteriffic tweets!)
Last year’s kick-off session was with GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt, who was 50 percent drunk and 100 percent entertaining — frank, blunt, and occasionally profane. The contrast this time around could not have been more stark. Mulally, looking like Mr. Rogers in his sleeveless red sweater vest, murmured the corporate line in soothing tones, assuring us all that Ford is great, its new goal is to make great cars that get greater every year, and that the future is great, also filled with greatness.
He’s got that lilting PR voice that releases your endorphins, but afterwards you can’t remember a thing he said, except about how everything is great. For instance, he answered a question about California’s fuel efficiency waiver with a torrent of won’t-you-be-my-neighbor filler that you had to concentrate on really hard to realize that he, just like the other Big Auto executives, opposes granting it. The answer, basically, was "we don’t want to have to make make cars to meet two standards, even though we’re already making our cars more fuel efficient every year." Well, why not make them fuel efficient enough to meet the stronger standard? Then you only have to meet one.
Nothing Mulally said would begin to explain why Ford’s valuation is tanking.
Talking about the future, it was clear that although Mulally sees some ethanol and electric cars in the mix, his true love and focus is the internal combustion engine, which he said Ford engineers could improve by 20-30 percent efficiency. He said ICEs will be the dominant vehicle technology for at least the next 10-15 years. Compact disc manufacturers are probably saying the same thing.
A couple of notable moments from the audience Q&A:
T. Boone Pickens got up and asked him about making cars that run on natural gas — for "energy independence," you know. Mulally was polite, but basically said, um, no. That’s dumb fracking idea and nobody wants those cars. It was pretty hilarious.
Another man got up and said that Ford had basically lost his whole generation. Mulally said, "I want to come up to your room later." I know the car companies are desperate, but I didn’t know their executive were literally prostituting themselves!
Anyway, it was largely a nothingburger with happy talk sauce. Pretty much what you’d expect from an American auto company. Meanwhile, later in the evening I ran into Bill Gross of IdeaLab, who took me out to the parking lot to show me this:
That’s the Aptera, a safety tested, super streamlined, fully electric two-seater, made entirely of carbon fiber, with a 100-mile range. (Tons more pictures here.) It will soon be available in California for $30,000. It’s what car companies make when they’re innovating instead of lobbying.