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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Ford’s Secret Weapon

Air Date: Week of

The big headlines for Ford Motor Company have been centered around the extensive layoffs and plant closures slated for the next few years. But at the same time, the company came out with a plan to mass-produce recyclable hybrid cars that might just bring Ford back into the green. Tim O'Brien is the director of the Piquette Project. He joins host Steve Curwood from his office in Dearborn, Michigan.


CURWOOD: So, how would you like a car that burns a lot less fuel, has a non-toxic interior and, when it finally costs too much fix, its maker will take it back?

Those are some of the concepts behind the secret Piquette project of the Ford Motor Company, named after the original model T plant. Ford quietly leaked the existence of the project to the press at the same time it announced layoffs of up to 30,000 employees and the closing of 14 plants in the years ahead.

Necessity may be the mother of invention…or in this case, environmentalism, as Ford figures out how to compete with eco-friendly big sellers like the Toyota Prius.

Tim O'Brien is the Vice President of Corporate Relations at Ford, and director of the Piquette Project team. Mr. O'Brien, thanks for joining us.

O’BRIEN: It’s my pleasure, Steve.

CURWOOD: Let’s talk about the business for a moment. Headlines recently have been filled with Ford’s woes; the market for cars is changing, the economy is changing. So I have to ask you this: is the mission of the Piquette Project to save Ford Motors?

O’BRIEN: I don’t think our mission is to save Ford Motor Company at all. Ford Motor Company certainly is in a very competitive business; we’ve set forth a plan that we think is going to position us to succeed in that business. But Bill and the company, I think, have a hundred-year history of really challenging the existing paradigm and rethinking what’s going to make us a successful business and a successful value to people in the future.

So without regard to how successful you are at the moment, you need to be thinking in those terms. And that’s really what Piquette is about. What is the future of the auto industry? How can we differentiate ourselves? What are the innovations that are necessary? What that might look like as early as 2008.

CURWOOD: Okay, let’s talk about some possible elements. I know, of course, that you have some trade secrets you don’t want to talk about publicly until you’re ready to go with them, but press reports say you’re looking at really a recycled vehicle approach, and also a fairly green vehicle approach. Let’s talk about how you might recycle a car. There’s a company out called Interface that makes carpets but doesn’t sell carpets; it leases them to customers, because when the carpet is old and worn out it takes it back and uses it to remake more carpets. Are you doing something along those lines?

O’BRIEN: Well I think the Interface example that you give is very instructive. They’ve rethought their business, and they’ve done a couple of important things. First of all, they’re addressing important environmental issues; but secondly, they’re trying to do that in a way that really creates a new and opportunistic business model. That is exactly what we’re trying to do here with the Piquette Project.

CURWOOD: So in the future I might lease a Ford, and when that Ford is too tired to go any further you’d take it back and remake it into more Fords?

O’BRIEN: Well I think what we understand, Steve, is that in a sustainable business future we need to create products that are not only valuable to the customer while the customer is using them, but have a residual value, whether it’s the technical components of the vehicle or the environmental aspects of the vehicle. We understand that that needs to have a value in the future and we think if we design that in we can begin to create a very different dynamic in our business.

CURWOOD: Amory Lovins from the Rocky Mountain Institute is rather famous for his synthesis of what he calls the hypercar, ways that you can remake cars of different materials using, say, carbon rather than steel – I guess the goal there is to be ultra-light – and he says you can get 100 miles to the gallon that way. What of those factors is going to be in your new car?

O’BRIEN: All of those factors are going to be considered, Steve. I think our challenge here is to pick up the creative thoughts of people like Amory Lovins. And this notion of bringing in thoughts from environmental leaders like Amory, or businesses like Interface, is very much a part of Piquette. We need to bring those in to our business and then make a business case out of them. There is nothing that’s off the table, but at the same time we need to be serious-minded business people. This is not sustainable if it’s not affordable.

CURWOOD: So you’re not looking for a premium market, you’re looking for a mass market here?

O’BRIEN: That’s right. We want to make a vehicle that is responsive to the general marketplace. This should not be a science project; this should be something that makes sense to you and me as consumers.

CURWOOD: Now time seems to be really a pretty big factor in all of this. Do you guys have enough time? Has this been set in motion to give you the product?

O’BRIEN: Yes, we do have enough time, Steve. And actually what I like is we’ve set for ourselves a schedule that is less time than you would normally use in this company, or in our industry, to do something of this nature. We have to do things differently if we want different results, and that’s why I’m so glad that we’re doing things like the Piquette Project. We are not approaching our business in the usual fashion. We recognize that the usual fashion won’t succeed in the future. The Piquette is really a stretch opportunity to redefine what that future might be.

CURWOOD: Tim O’Brien is the Vice President for Corporate Relations at the Ford Motor Company and director of the Piquette Project team. Thank you, sir.

O’BRIEN: It’s my pleasure, Steve, thank you.

CURWOOD: Ford hopes the Piquette project will be ramped up enough by 2010 to be able to put a quarter million hybrid recyclable vehicles on the road.



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