Ford Canada CEO Mark Buzzell on the hybrid future of the auto business

Automakers are looking beyond the business of selling cars, says Ford Canada’s new CEO, to a future where they provide mobility services in many forms

New Ford Canada CEO Mark Buzzell at the Canadian International AutoShow. (Ford Canada)

Ford Canada CEO Mark Buzzell at the Canadian International AutoShow. (Ford Canada)

Mark Buzzell took the reins as president and CEO of Ford Motor Company of Canada at the start of 2017. He takes over the Detroit giant’s northern operations at a key moment for the industry.

Within the automotive space, the growing popularity of ride-sharing services like Uber and the potential of autonomous vehicles threaten to eventually reduce—or, if you listen to tech companies, eliminate—car ownership. Automakers are starting to devote considerable attention and resources to combatting and co-opting these trends. (General Motors, for example, bought self-driving developers Cruise Automation and invested in ride-hailing app Lyft). Under CEO Mark Fields, Ford is trumpeting its interest in “mobility,” a catch-all term that includes ride-sharing and automation, as well as electric vehicles and bike rentals.

At the same time, the Trump administration’s desire to rework NAFTA could have serious implications for the cross-border automotive trade. Manufacturing and assembly on many models sold by Ford and other brands is distributed across Mexico, Canada and the U.S.—parts cross the border as many as eight times before being installed, according to the industry-linked Centre for Automotive Research.

At the Canadian International AutoShow in Toronto last week, Buzzell highlighted the importance of electric vehicles and explained how the company is looking to diversify beyond its core business of selling cars, trucks and SUVs.

Ford has announced a number of “mobility” initiatives recently. What is Ford Canada doing in this area right now?

A lot of the announcements you’ve heard from a company standpoint, all of that stuff is going to make its way to Canada. We’ve announced a $4.5 billion investment to bring seven new [electric vehicles] to market by the year 2020. That’s really important here in Canada, because we’re going to have some EV requirements here. So it’s going to be important from that standpoint, but really the way we like to look at it, it’s going to be important from a customer standpoint. [For] customers who love these vehicles, through electrification, it’s not just better fuel economy, it’s better performance.

We do know that consumers right now may be reluctant to purchase EV vehicles. Last year our industry here [in Canada] was 1.9 million vehicles. Collectively, as an industry, we sold only 30,000 EVs, and less than 10,000 were hybrid or plug-in hybrid vehicles. If we can overcome some of the concerns like range anxiety, if we can work to increase the number of charging stations, our research shows that consumers would be more likely to purchase one of these vehicles. So we’re piloting things like wireless charging stations.

Ford CEO Mark Fields has said he foresees a spectrum of car use in the future, from ownership to access. Does that mean Ford anticipates it’s going be building fewer cars in a few years?

Our core business is still going to be designing, manufacturing, selling, financing, and servicing our core products: cars, trucks, SUVs, and EVs. But with urbanization, congestion, and [other] issues that we’re facing in our cities, we want to come up with solutions that really do make people’s lives easier. That’s why we’ve invested in companies like Chariot out in San Francisco which is a crowdsourced, shuttle-based service that you can do on your app. We are going to expand the Chariot service in other cities—[I’m] not really sure at this point where we [will] expand it. But Chariot’s given us the ability to really learn customer wants and desires. [And] we’ve bought GoBike in San Francisco.

Some tech companies are betting that car ownership will be replaced by sharing or autonomous vehicles that users can just access when they need to. Even if it’s less extreme than that, what’s the role of Ford Canada as a separate entity from the parent company in an environment in which less cars are being made and sold?

We don’t see on the horizon car, truck and SUV sales going down that dramatically. In our five year business plan we see a very healthy automotive industry. [But] we do need to figure out what our mobility solutions are going to be for Canada. We’re sitting here in Toronto—we know there’s already tremendous urban congestion. At Ford Canada, we’re going to have to look to see which mobility products and services make sense to bring here to Canada. So I have nothing to announce today, but those are things that we’re going to have to work on over the next couple of years, is to figure out where we play in Canada, with what mobility services.

Last year Ford signed a deal to work with Blackberry subsidiary QNX, on automotive software. And auto parts manufacturer Magna International, another Canadian company that supplies Ford, has been working on autonomous vehicle technology. What are you expecting from those relationships?

I’ve only been here seven weeks, so it’s a little early for me to comment on things like that. I think one of the things that we’ve seen change in the industry, going back to seven or eight years ago, is certainly manufacturers like Ford are looking to develop closer, longer-term relationships with our suppliers. They’ve got a lot of great innovation and R&D technology, so by having those longer-term relationships, we are collaboratively going to come up with better products and services. Which particular ones, I really can’t comment on that, because I’m too new to the business here, but certainly that’s something we’ll continue to try to do and do more of.