Bill Ford Jr. long has been the environmental visionary for Ford Motor Co. and, arguably, one of the "greenest" minds in the global auto business. So it's no surprise that he has emerged as a leading figure in the rising interest in self-driving automobiles and in the debate over what role they might have in the urban-transportation networks of the future.
As much as Ford's scion and executive chairman already has led the company to a forward position in many areas of sustainability—green manufacturing operations, some of the first mainstream hybrids, a fuel-economic product line— Ford Jr. now must help the company and the industry adapt to an era in which everyone seems really eager to take driving functions away from fallible humans and give them to computers in a modern car that, as Ford put it, "is really becoming a rolling group of sensors."
Interested parties range from Ford and other auto makers, to governments, to digital giants such as Google. "The car as we know it, and how it's used in people's lives, is going to change really dramatically and it's going to change fast," Ford said at the annual Milken Global Conference in Los Angeles this week
Advocates of self-driving cars promote the safety of computer controls and the environmental benefits of more efficient travel. For his part, Ford envisions that the features of self-driving cars will change transportation as much as the various new types of powertrains, from electric to hydrogen, that will propel them. He underscored the urgency of figuring out self-driving because of sheer population growth as well.
By 2050, the population is expected to be around 9 billion compared wtih 7 billion people now, and most of this growth will be in major cities, adding billions of cars to urban landscapes. "How are we going to move people in an environment that looks like that?" Ford said. It could result in "global gridlock."
But while Ford clearly continues to envision a key role for cars in the urban future, self-driven or not, some other thinkers this week talked about cutting traditional vehicles—self-driven or not—out of the picture more and more.
"The age of the highway city is over; we can't afford it; and it's not desirable," commented Peter Calthorpe, an urban designer, at the 2013 Fortune Brainstorm Green conference in Laguna Niguel, CA. (Click here for Fortune Brainstorm Green remarks from P&G CEO Bob McDonald, GM CEO Dan Akerson and General Mills CEO Kendall Powell).
Calthorpe and other panelists argued for improving mass transit in big cities enough that individual-vehicle travel would lose its luster. "The answer has more to do with walking and biking—shoes, not tires."
When Bill Ford was interviewed for McKinsey Quarterly in late 2009 about his sustainability vision, he didn't mention self-driving cars. He focused on greener manufacturing and, of course, more fuel-efficient powertrains. But even then, Ford unwittingly provided his own explanation for why that might have been the case.
"Things are changing really quickly," he said back then, talking about powertrain types but in a way clearly applicable to other important automotive technologies and issues. "We need to be nimble enough so that, 18 months from now, if something else is the most interesting play, we can roll with that."