Interview with David Berdish of Ford Motor Company

Mobility MapI was recently introduced to the Ford Motor Company Urban Mobility Network and became intrigued by the possibility of an automotive company championing mass transit.  To get the scoop, I spoke with David Berdish who is Manager of Sustainable Business Development and also manages Ford's human rights code of basic working conditions.

Leslie Berliant: What is the Ford Urban Mobility Network?

David Berdish: Basically what we've been looking into as part of my job in sustainability is identifying emerging trends as a result of climate change or human rights. I'm also in charge of human rights at Ford. We're the only company in our industry that has a code where we assess, evaluate and remediate our supply base, partners, etc. based on human rights issues. We won't source to them if they're not up to code.

There is a trustworthiness we have developed in emerging markets because of this and it is in these markets where we've been noticing the trend toward urbanization, By 2050, 75% of the population will be living in urban centers of 10 million or more, and 39 of the top 50 cities will be in areas not in the U.S., Europe or Japan. The idea that people will have 1.8 cars and trucks in their garages will become obsolete. And we are delusional to think we can do business the same way in India as we do in Indiana. Basically, the Ford Urban Mobility Network offers integrated urban solutions for people in cities that can't afford our product or where the infrastructure and congestion is so bad that they wouldn't want to travel by car. In addition, by the end of the decade, places like Cape Town in South Africa may decide that they aren't going to let cars into cities anyway.

This is a market changing trend. This says we can be flexible in our definition of mobility and prepare our company and customers for what is ahead in terms of how people get around. We want to be a provider of mobility services in these urban areas. Imagine you live in Cape Town in a Northern township. You live 4 miles from the bus station. Through this Mega-Cities project, you can rent a car, car share, ride a bike or use a cab to get to the bus. The bus will take you where you need to go, the store, school, your job, the clinic, and you get off and look on your cell phone and see the schedule of services and see that you can pick up a car share, wait for a minibus or an electric rickshaw to get the rest of the way to your destination. People will have access to schedules and the greenest, cheapest and fastest way to go and the will be able to pay for the transportation off of their cell phones. They become a subscriber to this portfolio of options and will have gone to their destination without having to drive a car, cause congestion or carbon emissions. You also might be someone who just doesn't want to have a car.. We're working with governments to link and connect conventional transportation like bus and trains with these hopper services all through a Ford branded cell phone or kiosk. We believe that because of our trustworthiness in these places, we have the ability to partner together. In Cape Town, we have car services, bus service, artists want to make it scenic and pretty, The World Cup committee needs to improve the infrastructure because it wants to get a World Cup match there.

We are also developing this in Chennai and Bangalore.  We're looking at various locations around the world. We are trying to integrate the solutions, make mass transit sexier and safer to use and encouraging people to drive less. We are not looking to shrink the car market. Ford can make the citizens' commute a higher quality one and maybe then they will switch brand loyalty.  This type of solution encourages people to drive less and can have a bigger impact than fuel economy standards, for example. This is a game changer. We think cities are an emerging market and that we can make an impact on climate change and the quality of life for poor people, and hopefully the rest of our customers, by doing this.

LB: How did Ford get involved?

David BerdishDB: Part of our sustainability efforts have been identifying emerging trends from climate change and human rights. As part of our partnership with the University of Michigan, the theoretical basis of this came from Sue Zielinksi who is Managing Director of Sustainable Mobility and Accessibility Research and Transformation (SMART) at the University of Michigan. She worked on urban planning, social research and integrated mobility, as well as different sources of energy. She's been in this field for almost 20 years and really is my inspiration. I hooked up with her in my own journey to try and build on the social dimensions of sustainability in 2005 and we've been joined at the hip ever since.

There's another reason that this journey got started. We pride ourselves on our history of social change and this is really an extension of the fact that we were the first in our industry to report our sustainability performance, the first to issue a climate change report and the only one to have a human rights code that we actually report against. It is a logical extension for us to think about different ways to leverage the social impact of sustainability. There is a way to work on climate change issues while trying to shorten the gap between the rich and poor by providing accessibility to a better quality of life. This is also one the objectives of University of Michigan through Sue's group.

LB: Who else is involved?

DB: We have a partnership with Georgia Tech and different local partners depending on the cities we are operating in.

LB: Where is this program currently active and how is it working?

DB: None of our projects are up and running yet, we're in the infancy stages. The closest right now is in Cape Town, but we have changes daily. There is a sense of urgency to get a few done by the end of year because people are wanting to improve things sooner rather than later, but it might be a few years still.

LB:  Paul Herman, the founder of HIP Investor, has often said that corporations need to stop thinking of themselves as being in the business of what they make, but of what human need they solve. You alluded to this earlier, but do you see this affiliation positioning Ford as moving toward being a transportation company rather than a car company?

DB: Absolutely. We even prefer the term mobility. As we work on this technology, one solution might be not to drive at all but to walk or ride a bike . We're looking at these projects as being a provider of mobility services

LB: Are other car companies making similar transitions?

DB: I don't believe so. I really think it's the trustworthiness factor. We're working in the regions with government officials and highly visible local NGOs. There's a certain amount of groundwork to gain that trust and we have a strong global reputation in this regard.  

LB: At the same time, today's automotive industry seems schizophrenic. You have companies like Toyota benefiting economically from the Prius and fighting higher CAFÉ standards at the same time. Where do initiatives like the Ford Urban Mobility Network fit within Ford today?

DB: We will continue to design and produce vehicles customers desire around the world.  We are saying that to be a sustainable business, in the economic, environmental and social sense, we need to explore new models of transportation to meet the changing needs and demands of an increasingly urbanized markets where personal vehicle ownership will be only one of several transportation options.

I think it's a fair question but I do believe we have a lot more learning to do and as we work on this project.  I think we can make it a part of our integrated approach.

Back to the CAFÉ standards, I was doing a presentation on Mega-Cities and an NGO jumped on me and asked how we could be talking about this when we're making Explorers and then another NGO stood up for me and said don't you see that what Ford is talking about will reduce carbon and fuel usage significantly. We do hope that this shows that we're not schizophrenic and are trying to deliver to markets and that we understand how important it is to reduce carbon.

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  • Posted on June 28, 2008. Listed in:

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