WASHINGTON—Developing hardware and software to run self-driving vehicles will be easy compared to the regulations, ethics, infrastructure and workforce retraining required to support and deal with the pending transformation of personal transportation, Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman Bill Ford said.
The auto maker has made mobility a strategic focus in recent years as new technologies emerge, consumer lifestyles change and society embraces sustainability initiatives.
It hopes to take advantage of new revenue streams from ride sharing and other business models even as overall car ownership is projected by some futurists to decline.
Speaking at the Atlantic Council here, Ford, said people who enjoy driving will still be able to command their vehicle even when autonomous vehicles become ubiquitous.
"There will always be people who love to drive and we'll have vehicles for them. But if you live in L.A. or Phoenix, you may not love your daily commute, so you'd rather free up time to do things," he said. "The choice will not be binary."
Autonomous–vehicle adoption will start in cities, but will have applicability in rural areas too, especially to help deliver health care for people who don't have easy access to medical providers, the Ford chairman said.
The gig economy—consisting of people working as independent contractors—is producing more traffic with individual riders in each vehicle and optimally will evolve to where vehicles are shared by people, he said.
Toward that end, Ford bought a small startup called Chariot that serves as a crowd-sourced shuttle, putting 10 to 15 people in a transit van.
Among the ethical questions that society has to answer is whether a smart car should react to save the occupant or people outside the vehicle, such as pedestrians, in the event of a potential collision, Ford said.
Many workers in the taxi, trucking and delivery business will be displaced, so government and industry need to think about how they can be supported through other lines of work, he added.
"It's really hard to find a place or institution that is thinking through all these ramifications, in a comprehensive way," the great-grandson of Henry Ford said. "But we need to start having those discussions."
The autonomous-vehicle space is too large and complex for any one company to dominate, so Ford will compete with, partner with and, in some cases, acquire other companies, Ford said.
"The concept of 'frenemies' is something we are going to have to get comfortable with" since the auto industry has historically been very insular, he said.
Following last month's management shakeup and new industry trends, Ford in five years "should be be less capital intensive, less cyclical, much closer to the customer and helping cities sort out their congestion issues, if we do this right," Ford said.