Code Conference

Ford CEO on steering the 113 year old giant towards a future of mobility and autonomous cars

Mark Fields speaking at the 2016 Code Conference.
Asa Mathat | Vox Media

Ford President and CEO Mark Fields may have one of the most challenging jobs of any executive here at Code Conference: transition a 113 year old auto-maker into a product and mobility services business. All this must happen without alienating current consumers, damaging the existing brand and negotiating with regulators.

The cars of our future will have advanced autonomous features, and hardware and software designed to deliver all kinds of content where and how consumers want it, said Fields. To do this, Ford is actively investing in building mobility into its vehicles, exploring partnerships with tech companies, as well as potential acquisitions, and working with regulators.

"We have everything on the table," said Fields in his on-stage interview with Re/code executive editor Kara Swisher.

The company has opened a Silicon Valley field office - a lot closer to its tech competitors and potential partners dipping their toes into mobility. The average vehicle already has over 150 million lines of code, said Fields.

"We wanted to be viewed as part of the community," said Fields. "One of the things we learned is the startup mentality."

That means releasing products that may not be "perfect" and then quickly iterating on them to make them better, something that is not part of Ford's traditional business model.

Though it is going head to head with deep-pocketed tech giants like Alphabet's Google and Apple and upstarts like Uber to develop autonomous vehicles and connected cars, Ford has one clear advantage, said Fields.

"With mobility, you do need a vehicle," he said. "Designing, developing and manufacturing a car is a very intense and a difficult endeavor."

Google has made it clear that it has no intentions to get into car manufacturing, but wants to partner with the likes of Ford and General Motors. Fields would not reveal how reported discussions with Google and Uber are progressing, simply saying: "we are talking with everybody."

Generally speaking, the company is looking at any company that would represent a good cultural fit and could provide an equal amount of benefit to a potential partnership.

"The dynamics get very funky very quickly if someone thinks they're getting screwed," he said.

In addition to partnerships, the company is exploring M&A opportunities, particularly in areas of mobility where Ford does not have expertise. For example, the it recently invested $182.2 million in cloud-based software company Pivotal

"We said to ourselves, we really need to up our game in learning around delivering these software services, " said Fields.

Of course, delivering connected cars consumers - and regulators - can trust means creating cars that are both connected to the cloud, but also protected from hackers.

"We take it very very seriously," said Fields. "We want to make sure we have the policies and protocols in place."

If and when a potential vulnerability is revealed, the company conducts engineering analysis to figure out exactly what happened and if its cars are impacted. It also uses firewalls to ensure that the software that runs the infotainment systems is siloed from the software that runs the mission critical functions of the vehicle.

Fields may be selling the company to this tech audience as an innovative change-maker, that said, there is one area where it remains incredibly traditional: cars are sold through a network of dealerships across the U.S and Ford has fought efforts by Tesla to change that model.

"We have to abide by a set of state laws, we think Tesla should have to," said Fields.

Tomorrow, it's the turn of Tesla CEO Elon Musk in the red chair and the audience will be watching closely for his reaction.

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