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full throttle

The last time I had dinner with Ford Motor executive chairman Bill Ford, he talked about the future of value-added industries in America's heartland which, of course, includes the devastated and bankrupt city of Detroit, Ford's hometown.

He touched on manufacturing first, noting that it is crucial for developed countries to retain a strong manufacturing base, even if developing and Third World countries do the same work cheaper. A strong manufacturing base creates good jobs and stabilizes the economy, he said. It's also a source of pride.

Then Ford turned to engineering. He said it's become tough for the auto industry to attract the best engineering talent. Too many bright minds are being pulled to Wall Street to do financial engineering, while others find it impossible to avoid rolling the dice of enrichment at a Silicon Valley startup.

Notoriously uncomfortable in larger groups, over dinner Ford was open, accessible and forward-thinking. He had already decided to step down as Ford Motor CEO and personally wooed former Boeing executive Alan Mulally to the job. Ford had become executive chairman, a role that kept him involved in Ford Motor's day-to-day operations, but freed him of daily decision-making.

Ford had enough humility and self-awareness to recognize that he was ill-equipped for the CEO job. Ford has long appeared as an old-fashioned, mid-western lad interested in the environment and advocating for quality automotive jobs in his hometown. Still, no one should confuse that with a reluctance to send manufacturing jobs elsewhere if it makes business sense.

Last month, Ford penned an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in which he discussed "the automobile as part of a larger ecosystem." He said that cars must become "part of our broader transportation network" and that unending growth in car sales is unsustainable – not with two billion vehicles expected to be on the road by 2050, stuffing already over-populated cities.

Massive congestion will have "serious consequences for our environment, health, economic progress and quality of life," he wrote, adding, "No matter how clean and efficient vehicles are, we simply cannot depend on selling more of them as they function today. Cars will need to be smarter and more integrated into the overall transportation system." Car companies must morph into "personal-mobility companies."

Future cars must emphasize connectivity and car-sharing will grow. Lighter, more efficient vehicles made of carbon fibre and aluminum will use less fuel and pump out fewer emissions. Self-driving cars are coming and among many things, this offers benefits for the physically challenged. Even flying cars are possible.

This is Ford's vision and I wouldn't bet against any of this coming to pass.

In the meantime, however, Ford Motor and Bill Ford are moving into the most challenging period in company history – tougher than the turnaround of the past eight years. In desperate times, Ford Motor could take desperate measures under the refreshing leadership of Mulally, the bubbly outsider. But now Ford Motor lifer Mark Fields is CEO. Is the new Ford sustainable, or a blip?

We'll find out soon enough. Ford Motor is embarking on its most ambitious vehicle launch program. Twenty-three models will be launched globally this year, 16 of them in North America. One will be the aluminum-bodied 2015 F-150 pickup. The F-Series is at the heart of Ford's profitability. If the 2015 F-Series stumbles, Ford will be in a world of hurt.

Bill Ford will be the constant in this. He shows no signs of moving on, instead serving as a voice of reason and experience at one of the most important manufacturers in the world. He is very much an underappreciated industrial leader. Those who doubted him over the years, who questioned his depth, capabilities and commitment, have been proven wrong.

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