Americans are wary of driverless cars — 56 percent, according to the Pew Research Center, would prefer not to ride in one — and when I talked to Brewer, it occurred to me that some part of that hesitation might stem from who we assume will be producing them: Silicon Valley tech giants, the same stateless behemoths that have spent the last few decades barging into old-line industries like the Kool-Aid Man, destroying working-class jobs and leaving behind cold, modern efficiency. But maybe these skeptics could be persuaded to trust Detroit. After all, Brewer is right — self-driving cars aren’t smartphones. They’re two-ton projectiles that take your parents to the grocery store and your kids to soccer practice, that will need to make billions of computational decisions per second while moving at 65 miles per hour, that contain within them the power to extinguish human life. You kind of want them to take a while.
Leading Ford into this weird new era is Jim Hackett, who was named chief executive in May. Hackett, 62, is an oddity by Detroit standards. A design-minded aesthete in an industry dominated by gearheads and number crunchers, he spent two decades running Steelcase, a Michigan-based office-furniture company whose designers are often credited with — or blamed for — popularizing the open-plan office trend.
At a conference several years ago, Hackett struck up a conversation with Ford’s executive chairman, William Clay Ford Jr., who goes by Bill. He is the great-grandson of Henry Ford, and another auto-world misfit — an outspoken environmentalist who once ruffled feathers at Ford by speaking at a Greenpeace event. The two bonded over their shared vision of “smart mobility,” a fuzzy term, more common among urbanists than businesspeople, for creating a sort of harmony among land use, technology and transportation of all forms. Hackett joined Ford’s board of directors in 2013. In 2016, Bill Ford persuaded Hackett to lead Ford’s newly created smart-mobility unit, and about a year later, he tapped him to run the entire company.