People want to drive gas-guzzling SUVs. The demand for them, along with trucks, is continuing to grow so much that it could even outweigh the carbon-emission benefit gains made by all electric vehicles.
That is, unless the car industry builds electric SUVs.
That’s what the Ford Motor Company is doing. Today, the company is unveiling an electric SUV called the Mustang Mach-E (though details were leaked earlier this week). Unlike many electric cars, which tend to be smaller sedans that car companies often release to keep regulators happy, this car was designed from the ground up to fit right in with the rest of Ford’s famed Mustang sports cars. Except, of course, that you can’t rev the engine since you don’t need any gas (though the car’s performance version can still go from zero to 60 in about three and a half seconds).
The electric SUV, which will be delivered to customers in late 2020, is the first vehicle that was shepherded from start to finish by Ford CEO Jim Hackett, who took the company’s top job in 2017 and previously helmed the furniture manufacturer Steelcase. While Hackett has announced a renewed emphasis on electric cars and hybrids, with an announcement in 2018 that Ford would release 40 nongas cars by 2022, this is the first tangible evidence of his strategy—and the first evidence of how his emphasis on the Ideo brand of design thinking might pay off for the 116-year-old automaker.
The rationale for an electric SUV
Hackett says that there were plans for a new Ford electric car already underway when he joined the company, but that he and his team decided to scrap it and start afresh. “I was imbuing this notion that design is going to rule here,” Hackett says. “[My team] said, this doesn’t meet the measure of any of that. So we said, we have to tear it up.”
Instead of building yet another “science project,” as Hackett called previous electric cars in our conversation, Ford decided to focus instead on macro trends to find a form factor that might actually be profitable for the company (like most manufacturers, Ford has never built a profitable electric car).
The most important trend? If you take fuel efficiency off the table, people want larger cars.
“People have voiced that when fuel prices are low, they want larger silhouettes,” Hackett says. “That’s what customers are telling us. If there’s a future where fuel prices aren’t the determining factor, then therefore logic would say that they want larger silhouettes.”
That means SUVs and trucks—which is why in 2018, Ford decided to scrap most of its sedans in the U.S. market in favor of focusing on its larger models, such as the hugely popular F-150 pickup truck. Hackett says that part of the shift is due to the fact that sedans are no longer the only vehicles to boast good fuel mileage: today the F-150 can get 20 miles per gallon in four-wheel-drive mode, whereas it used to only get around 10 to 12 miles per gallon. (An electric F-150 pickup truck is also in the works.)
This shift in consumer preferences comes as governments are mandating a shift toward electric in an attempt to alter the environmental consequences of car-dependent societies. But instead of just building a car to meet regulations, Hackett is hoping that Ford’s electric vehicles, starting with the Mustang Mach-E, will actually solve some of the problems that people have had with electric cars for years. “[Regulation] happens usually as a way to get things started, but it will not be the reason that [electric] wins,” Hackett says. “It wins because the cost of the battery is dropping, the range is improving, it’s easy to charge them.”
To that end, the Mach-E will start at a reasonable $43,895 (less with a governmental subsidy). It has a range of up to 300 miles on a single charge. Ford has also forged a few partnerships to create the nation’s largest charging network of more than 12,500 charging stations (even beating out Tesla). As part of a newly redesigned in-vehicle entertainment system, the Mach-E will indicate charging stations when mapping out how you should get to your destination. If you do need to charge up while on the road, the system will also recommend where you should stop and for how long. For prospective customers, the Mach-E website will include a mapping tool that will show where chargers are so you can get a sense of the network before deciding to buy the car.
Bringing design into the car
Hackett is perhaps most proud of the Mach-E’s entertainment system, called Sync 4, which was built with a focus on user testing. He views it as a monumental departure from the previous ways that cars were designed to work with technology. “The cars tended to get too much content, which means virtues and features that we think you want but you don’t even touch,” he says.
Making technology work seamlessly has often been an afterthought. “We have pictures . . . that [are] a collage of how customers are bolting or strapping phones into vehicles, because the vehicle can’t deliver what they like,” Hackett says. “We took that as a challenge.”
Sync’s interface has a large, 15.5-inch screen that takes up most of the traditional entertainment console (similar to Tesla’s). The dashboard can grip one or two phones, which connect automatically to the car, and it wirelessly charges them as you drive.
Instead of relying on drivers to scroll through options on the screen while they’re driving—which can be distracting and dangerous—the system learns what you do at particular times so that it can surface the right actions in the future. This aims to ensure that the most important actions you might want to take in the car, such as playing music or calling a family member, are one touch away rather than buried in menus. Your preferences along with what the car has learned about you are saved to a profile that you can control through an app on your phone. “It’d be ridiculous to drive a car without having your profile set. It’d be like using an iPhone with somebody else’s settings on it,” says Darren Palmer, Ford’s global product development director for battery electric vehicles.
Palmer explains that Sync 4 came about because a cross-functional team was allowed to brainstorm, prototype, test, and try again. And not everything worked: “We thought they’d want to swipe the screen from the side—we tried that,” he says. “But you don’t want to swipe it when you’re driving. We could have built a whole interface like a phone with swiping, but it’s not good—it doesn’t work in a car.”
Customers, who can preorder the Mach-E starting today, will have the final say about whether Menlo works as well as Palmer claims it does. But for Hackett, this focus on prototyping, testing, and getting feedback has become the hallmark of his product philosophy at Ford.
And he needs it to work. Since Hackett took over in 2017, Ford’s stock price has slid about 20% amid disappointing financials, and the company has struggled to meet Wall Street expectations. Hackett has focused on restructuring Ford’s businesses and cutting $25 billion in costs in an effort to “work on the fitness of our business,” he says. “I wince when I read that people say we’re a disappointment, that we’re not where we’re need to be,” he says. “It’s not true, because all the underpinnings of the transformation is evident in these restructurings.”
Because cars take so long to design, build, manufacture, and bring to market—between 24 and 36 months—Hackett says he hasn’t had a chance to show people what the “new Ford” looks like. Until now.
“That’s what we’re bringing out. We had to go invent all that.”