William Clay — “call me Bill” — Ford went to great heights last week to show off the latest Ford Mustang muscle car. The car was transported in sections to the 112th floor of the world’s tallest building, the 830m Burj Khalifa in Dubai, then reassembled for the launch of Dubai as the headquarters of Ford’s newest business unit, for Africa and the Middle East.
Ford has a history of inducing vertigo among Mustang fans. Early this year, it placed the car on the observation deck of New York’s Empire State Building, echoing the stunt it pulled in 1965 with the original Mustang. Maybe several hundred metres up in the air is the best place for the Mustang. For Bill Ford seems genuinely worried that, unless society acts urgently, the automobile may be heading towards ground-level Armageddon.
Motorists in the Chinese capital Beijing spend an average five hours a day getting to and from work, he told a media briefing earlier that day. US motorists spend a week each year in traffic jams. And it’s only going to get worse as population growth and rapid urbanisation create more chaos. There are already about a billion vehicles on the world’s roads — a figure that is expected “to double and then double again” by 2050, says Ford. “This will create global grid-lock on a scale we have never seen.”
More roads is not the answer. “You can’t pave your way out of the problem.” Some cities are imposing congestion charges for driving in cities; limiting the days when certain cars can use roads; or making parking too expensive. A California university study suggested 70% of traffic congestion in Los Angeles is caused by motorists looking for parking. But none of these solutions can work in isolation.
There’s no point limiting traffic unless there’s an alternative. That means reliable, affordable public transport — an idea slow to gain traction in South Africa. Ford says: “The motor industry and public transportation have to work together. For example, when you wake up and your cellphone tells you there is an accident on your usual route, you take the train into town instead.”
In principle, there is no reason this should not happen. There is so much microprocessing and computing power in the average cars that it’s only a short step to the point that they are able to communicate with each other and with central transport systems. The technology to achieve all of this already exists. Several motor companies have outlined plans to introduce “autonomous” self-drive cars that rely on interconnectivity. All the driver will have to do is programme in the destination, sit back and let the car do the work.
The reality of autonomous driving isn’t far away. Features such as ABS brakes, lane assist, autopark and adaptive cruise control, which keeps your car a fixed distance from the vehicle in front, already override driver instructions. “By the time we get to autonomous driving, it will be a bit of an anticlimax because we are almost there,” says Ford. One thing he’s not expecting, however, is flying cars (the Mustang, despite its high-altitude adventures, is strictly a tarmac specialist).
Some companies have suggested flying cars may be commercially viable within two years, but Ford says: “It’s a cool idea but not practical. You still need pilot licences and places you can take off and land. There are a lot of good automotive ideas out there but I don’t think this is one of them.”