Bill Ford, chairman of the US carmaker his great-grandfather founded, styles himself as a visionary who likes to weigh in on the biggest challenges facing the industry.
Until now Mr Ford, who relinquished the chief executive job in 2006, has been best known for championing environmental issues, sometimes weathering ridicule from pressure groups when the company failed to meet his objectives.
A decade ago Mr Ford oversaw the revamp of Ford Motor’s sooty, sprawling River Rouge plant near Detroit as a showpiece of green engineering, down to its “living roof” carpeted with indigenous plants.
The company, best known in the US for its big F-Series pick-up trucks, has over the past decade launched a credible portfolio of lower-emission, more fuel-efficient vehicles and engines.
Now Mr Ford is putting himself front and centre on the issue of traffic gridlock – a growing concern among all carmakers as vehicle sales boom in densely urbanised emerging countries, but road and traffic infrastructure fails to keep up.
In a speech on Monday, Mr Ford will call for a unified effort between carmakers, government and mobile technology companies to work together to avoid what he calls “a potential future of crippling congestion”.
Ford’s chairman will propose a “blueprint for mobility”, powered at first by the computing and communications technology already going into cars, including Ford’s own.
“Right now, there are a billion computing devices in the form of individual vehicles out on our roads,” Mr Ford told the Financial Times ahead of the speech. “They’re largely unconnected from one another and the network.”
Mr Ford will call for more partnerships with national and regional governments and universities that specialise in urban planning. No company, or even industry, he will argue, can go it alone.
“The whole goal is seamless, clean mobility in a crowded world,” he said.
“Mobility” has become one of the most-used words in the car industry lately as automakers grapple with the twin challenges of the mobile communications revolution and the shift in demand for their products to developing countries.
About 3.5bn people – or half the world’s population – currently live in urban areas, according to a recent study on the future of urban mobility by Arthur D. Little. By 2050, the group said, the proportion will reach 70 per cent of the population, or 6.3bn people.
In 2010, China recorded what is described as history’s worst traffic jam in Hebei province, when road works and a high volume of coal trucks brought movement to a standstill for at least 11 days. At its longest, the jam stretched for 100 kilometres.
Carmakers see a serious threat to their business models if uncontrollable congestion hampers their sales growth, or turns consumers and planners away from cars.
At the same time, technology that allows cars to communicate with one another and public authorities are opening the way for traffic-management systems that will prevent accidents and congestion.
Ford points out that the threat of gridlock is not confined to emerging markets. The economic cost of congestion in England will rise to about $35bn annually by 2025, it says.
Mr Ford is not alone in calling for greater co-ordination to address congestion, or developing new products and services to address it.
Among rival carmakers, BMW is developing a sub-brand devoted to “sustainable mobiity” called BMWi, with an electric and hybrid car due to launch in 2013, designed in part for use in megacities.
PSA Peugeot Citroen, Daimler and Audi are among the carmakers also experimenting with new business models aimed at a more urbanised world, including schemes that offer shared ownership of cars, or integrate them with public and other forms of transport.
“I honestly believe we have to start to have a broader approach than just talking about the car,” Peter Schwarzenbauer, Audi’s head of sales, told the FT last week. “I would call it a mobility system, and the car is part of the whole issue.”
Mr Ford said that the concept of mobility had been in the company since Henry Ford brought freedom to travel to the masses with the Model T, but that this was now under threat.
Ford’s chairman will set out near-, medium- and long-term targets. To start with, Ford wants to develop in-car mobile communications options that alert drivers to traffic jams and accidents, and vehicle-to-vehicle warning systems.
Ford also sees the potential of cloud computing to route drivers toward alternative transport options when congestion is unavoidable.
The aim in the long term, Mr Ford said, is for a single connected network that will save time, conserve resources, lower emissions, and improve safety.