Automating and Risk-Taking: The Road Ahead with Ford Futurist Sheryl Connelly

As Tesla and Uber’s self-driving initiatives are making headlines, Ford has quietly and surely made significant steps forward as well. Notably, the American automaker has committed to having their own self-driving vehicles on the road in a ridesharing service by 2021.

To prepare for this, Ford has made recent acquisitions related to ridesharing, traffic data and more. With Uber and Tesla making major gains in automation, self-driving cars must be at the forefront of Ford’s strategy today. There is, however, a lot to consider for a company of a certain age, legacy and mindset.

What exactly that looks like is still being shaped, and a large part of it is influenced by Ford’s Global Trends and Futuring specialist Sheryl Connelly. With more than 20 years at the company, Sheryl tracks trends in nearly every sector that could affect Ford’s business. We had a chance to chat with Sheryl about her work and what that means for Ford in the automation revolution.

Technology is dramatically transforming the auto sector. What is it like foreseeing this change and then convincing a 113-year-old company to completely shift how they do business?

I am a one-man band in terms of spending 100% of my time working on trends and thinking about the future–but I am definitely not alone in the company in terms of people who think about the future. People in product development, design, engineering, IT, purchasing, HR; they all have this future mindset and it is inherent because it takes three to five years for us to bring a vehicle to market.

The pace of change is rapidly increasing and I think people’s openness to recognize that change is constant, and it’s disruptive, and it’s significant. And so these conversations are a lot easier today than they were ten years ago.

Fortunately we’ve always had very strong visionary leaders. Bill Ford, executive chairman of the board and Henry’s great-grandson, started talking about exploring mobility as a service several years ago – long before we were actually doing any kind of business application. He was saying this is an area we need to look at.

I do think of myself as the polite contrarian in the room. Sometimes there are people who are ready to take that journey with me and some people who aren’t. Not everyone has the appetite or willingness to have someone challenge them on a regular basis. A lot of what I do is iterative–you have to repeat it over and over. If you don’t get your point across the first time then you have to think of a new strategy.

When I am challenging the status quo, it’s never in the spirit of trying to prove someone wrong, or saying that this is definitely the vision of the future. My goal is just to get them to entertain a wider set of possibilities. If you were talking to me and saying that’s never going to happen, I would say well why don’t we talk about what it would that look like if it was going to happen? And I might completely agree with you and think it’s never going to happen either, but my role within Ford is to say but we should entertain it. We should at least explore what it would look like and how we would fair, if something like that were to occur, whatever that concept is.

The pace of change is rapidly increasing and I think people’s openness to recognize that change is constant, and it’s disruptive, and it’s significant. And so these conversations are a lot easier today than they were ten years ago.

You say it takes three to five years for Ford to bring a car to Market, whereas companies like Tesla can reimagine the vehicle through a simple software update. Can Ford keep up with this rate?

I’m not a car expert but to the extent of my knowledge I can answer that question. When it comes to software, we can be very nimble as well. When I talk about three-to-five years, I’m talking about retooling a plan, changing the shape of sheet metal—that’s a wholesale change of introducing a new vehicle or a new body style.

But we have had instances where we’ve made upgrades to our vehicles as well through software. One of the things we’ve had in our vehicles for quite some time now is this Sync and My Ford Touch platform. Sync is the architecture that we use to pair Bluetooth enabled devices with our system and My Ford Touch is a tablet-like surface in our vehicles that helps you navigate that space, so I can control my radio, my phone, my GPS, and the climate, all from a touch of the screen.

Just like any operating system after we launched it, we saw things that would like to change about it and we made those changes. What we did is send every owner a flash drive that was effected by the change. In recent years, we just announced that we can do those updates without ever sending a flash drive to you. If my car is parked in my garage and it’s connected to my home wifi, I can have updates sent to me overnight while I’m sleeping.

Ford is certainly embracing automation, but there are obvious risk factors. How is Ford managing this and does getting there first actually matter to Ford?

I don’t think that our goal is to be first—our goal is to get it right

There are high stakes here with automation. I always kind of point out that when you talk about autonomous vehicles, it hasn’t really been so much a question of technology. In the vehicle I drive right now I’ve got active cruise control, lane departure warning, collision warning and active park assist, so to a certain extend I can take my hands off the wheel and the building blocks are there.

I don’t think that our goal is to be first—our goal is to get it right

The obstacles that have to be overcome are outside the OEM–things like, how do you govern such a system that’s completely new? What kind of regulations do you put in place? What role will policy makers actually take? What about city and urban planners? What kind of infrastructure is needed in place to have unique vehicles that talk to one another, vehicles that talk to street signs? How will insurance be affected by such a change? Who actually insure the vehicle? Is it the rider, the owner, manufacturer of the vehicle? And then how will litigation play a role, because I think whatever isn’t fully vetted will certainly come to bear in litigation which is somewhat inevitable in some way.

These are the things that have to be resolved as well, so I have to think that’s where you see the timeline. You also have to talk about how you implement it. Maybe you have an autonomous lane where only autonomous vehicles drive, and then you have regular individual drivers somewhere else in a different lane. These are the hurdles that are still preventing this from becoming a reality. Even as it becomes a reality, it’s not going to be the flip of a switch where suddenly overnight this thing becomes autonomous. Right now the average vehicle on the road is somewhere between ten and eleven years, so it’s not like suddenly everyone will go out and say “I need an autonomous vehicle.”

In 50 years from now, autonomous driving will be much safer that human driving. What does that look like in the context of Ford’s legacy?

I don’t know that in the future, even if we have the opportunity, that every single car around the world will be autonomous. There are people who still really love the thrill of driving, the thought of an open road, pedal to the metal, the wind in their hair. I would say we haven’t given up on that either because our lineup of performance vehicles has never been stronger. This year we have come as far as we ever had in autonomous technology but this year we also won Le Mans for the first time in 50 years, so we still love that part of the business as well.

Your position bridges auto, technology and marketing—all male-dominated industries. What changes are you seeing in regards to gender equality in this your business?

I fell into this roll 13 years ago and at that point we were tracking the rising influence of women as a company. We called it the female frontier and historically we talked about it in terms second and third-world countries. We would take notice of patterns that are and over time it really started to focus on the western world to North America & Western Europe.

Here for instance in the US there are more female students than male students in roles in the country’s best university and colleges. We have numbers that tell us that women are more likely to get a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree or PHD than their male counterparts. I think my role within Ford is unique and I think more and more we see women taking on leadership roles.

What else is Ford doing in terms of diversity and how is that changing your business?

There is always this question about who’s buying our cars? We’re a hundred-year-old company and historically the auto industry has been very male dominated, and that is something that used to be reflected when women went into dealerships. Now when we think about women and cars, it’s a big paradigm shift. We tend to think of cars lovers as being adrenaline junkies and gear heads. What we are actually finding is that men and women basically want the same thing.

When it comes to cars, is there really a difference in terms of what they’re asking for? Our market research says no—they basically want the same thing. It’s just the way that they ask for it is fundamentally different.

They are talking about exactly the same thing, it’s just the way that they ask for it is different. Men like to focus on the technology, the science, and the innovation whereas women focus on the narrative, the context, or the solution.

For instance, a man might go into a dealership and say “what’s the horsepower on this vehicle?” whereas a women could go into the exact same dealership, look at the exact same vehicle, and say “You know I drive the carpool three days a week and when my baby’s in the backseat and the babies of my friends and family that have entrusted me with their children are also in the car and we’re getting onto the highway and there’s an 18-wheeler barreling down on our bumper, I need to be confident this vehicle has the get up and go to get out the way.”

They are talking about exactly the same thing, it’s just the way that they ask for it is different. Men like to focus on the technology, the science, and the innovation whereas women focus on the narrative, the context, or the solution.

Considering the rate of change, your role is more important than ever. What does it mean to manage the future of a company such a legacy?

I do not manage the future, that’s for sure. Nevertheless, it’s still an extraordinary honor. I’m honored to have this role which so unique and I’m honored to do it for a company that is so special to me.

I tell people all the time I’m not a car person, I never thought I’d be here for 20 years and here I still am and it really has much to do with the people more so than the product. And so I do feel really lucky, I feel lucky to get to work under the visionary leadership of people like Mark Fields and Bill Ford and it’s great to be part of the team.

What will you look back on at your tenure at Ford and think about as the moment you are the proudest of?

There are couple things that I’m really proud of. I’m really proud of the opportunities that Ford has afforded me because of the work that I do. Getting to speak at Head Global was a really big high point for me. Being recognized as one of the most creative people in business by Fast Company was a high point for me. I am also just finishing a two-year commitment to sit on a global advisory counsel to the world economic forum.

None of those things would have happened but for Ford.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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