Telematics and Model E Fordism



There is much to admire in Ford's reinvention of itself as a green manufacturing concern. Anything that can be done to improve the inefficiencies of automotive products and automotive production should be encouraged. At the same time, however, there is something to fear in this particular strategic approach to environmental preservation by a big transnational company. Its apparent comprehensive scope and sincerity essentially one-dimensionalize environmental concern in terms that suit existing government regulations, attainable industrial ecologies, and legacy transportation systems as much as possible. Ford does want to protect the unbuilt environments of nature, but it does this because those policies will enable it to preserve, much more significantly, the current built environment in Society that enables automotive products to work. Thus, Ford's sustainable development as a firm requires it to recast environmental protection in very constrained, conservationist, and corporate-centered terms. Such innovations are leading to much cleaner cars, more efficient factories, and more progressive management, but all this falls far short of creating a more ecological society beyond the artifactual forms and built environmental practices of today's most advanced suburban consumer societies.

Consequently, the only thing that might be worse than corporations with no green programs are those that have too much of an ecological mentality pegged purely to corporate rationality. Here the implicit authoritarianism that derives from the capitalist as a commander over technics as well as the chief commercialist in markets becomes far more explicit. Bill Ford means to sound progressive when he plays off Henry Ford's promise to give Model T buyers any color they wanted as long as it was black to proclaim "customers can have any vehicle they want as long as it is green", still, this gesture is hollow. Customers actually might want something far more ecological than Ford's green cars and SUVs, and all that they will get for those wants are Ford's output of e-labeled vehicles, ozone friendly SUVs, and green corporate citizenship reports.

Academe is wrestling with similar contradictions. So it is not a shock to find Gustave Speth, the Dean of Yale's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies struggling with this institution's academic programs to address the same concerns about sustainability as FoMoCo. "We need," Speth asserts, "a new science of environmental sustainability, and we need a new generation of environmental professionals."1 This new science and its professionals must recognize, according to Speth, "it's not just 'the economy, stupid,' and it's not just 'the environment, stupid.' The solution lies in figuring out the links between a wide variety of global, national, and local issues."2 Just as Ford intends to "Connect with Customers" in its industrial ecologies as a business, this academic vision of the environment hopes to train new cadres of environmental analysts who can see the ecologies of industry at work everywhere in the economy and society.

By connecting with customers to attain consummational outcomes, big business must preoccupy itself with "the conduct of conduct," and in particular with the "buying of buying" or "purchasing of purchasing." Habitus is habitat, as any good product semanticist or psychodemographer knows all too well. The ethical concerns of family, community and nation previously might have guided how conduct was to be conducted without much ecological content. Yet, at this juncture, the greening of Ford shows how "the environment" is now increasingly recruited by these social forces as a decisive ground for normalizing each individual's behavior.

From this environmental maneuvering, Bill Ford and Jacques Nasser also apparently have come to believe that the informational revolution is quite real and here to stay. Consequently, they announced a radical new program in 2000 to, provide, a good Gateway PC computer system and Internet connection for everyone of FoMoCo's full-time employees for $5 a month. As Bill Ford, Jr. said in Ford's 2000 Corporate Report:

Like the $5 a day wage Henry Ford pioneered in the last century, the $5 a month Internet connection is an affirmation that the only sustainable advantage a company has is its people. This action will enable Ford to lead the Information Age, just as we did the Industrial Revolution.3

Consequently, the Internet is being leveraged hard by Ford to reorganize the entire corporate supply chain from suppliers to buyers. Bill Ford believes "the Internet will be the moving assembly line of the 21st Century,"4 and the automobile as an artifact must change to conform to its dynamics.

Network connectivity is the tool needed to impose new industrial ecologies on itself and society, so Ford is partnering with Oracle, Microsoft, Bolt.com, and i.Village.com to reimagine its production processes and products in digital terms. Right now, these moves are pitched at re-rationalizing the corporation to produce better goods and services faster. And the same time, however, the car construct itself, or the artifact built to transport people and things from place to place, is being reconfigured to provide connectivity as a node in networks, Hence, "plans are also under way to introduce Internet connectivity to Ford Motor Company vehicles, providing our customers with a variety of safety features as well as audio e-mail, information and entertainment right in the vehicle."5 Thus, e-commerce opens up a new ecosystem to be mastered at FoMoCo by "ConsumerConnect--Ford's global e-business unit that is reinventing Ford Motor Company, from the way we interact with our suppliers to the ways customers interact with our vehicles."6 Inasmuch as the consumer's habitat becomes digital, Ford intends to leverage the Internet to manage its corporate habitus and its linkages back out to the car construct, driving public, and automotive culture.

As Bryan Kelley, Ford's President for Internet Strategy, argues the Internet is moving Ford from an industrial era "push" manufacturing concern, which makes something first and then tries to sell it, to a "pull" marketing shop, which uses quality branding, sharp advertising, and continuous promotion to motivate consumers to pull their buying choices through the company. Kelley observes, "'by using B2B supply chain management we cut down waste and with B2C we've finally found the way to connect the supply chain directly with the car buyer.'"7 Consequently, "the corporate Ford of 2010 will look more like Cisco--a company that manufactures very little." "You can already see moves to divest the more asset intensive, low-margin activities off their balance sheet," says Dresdender Kleinwort Benson's David Garrity.'"8

This awareness of new informationalized industrial ecologies also seems to be motivating Ford to ally closely, rather than compete openly, with General Motors, Daimler Chrysler, and Renault Nissan to create Covisint--a massive new automotive B2B company to connect the major car makers with over 50,000 outsource suppliers. Because these big four auto companies spend around $700 billion annually on components, covisint promises tremendous new ecological and economic savings.9 In addition, Ford already runs ConsumerConnect, and it has just launched percepts to provide on-board 24x7 phone, fax, and e-mail services to its car buyers.

Enthusiasts of the new economy look down on automobile companies, but car makers moved 16.9 million units in the U.S. during 1999, or $400 billion in sales. Nearly 90 percent of all miles traveled in 1995 were by auto, and this figure is a major increase over 1977s 84 percent of miles traveled by car. The number of cars per household also rose from 1.59 in 1977 to 1.78 in 1995, and the number of households not owning a car in 1995 was only 8 percent verses 15 percent in 1977.10 With these kinds of growth figures, computing, electronics, and telecommunications companies are diving into the automotive sector. Already electronics in 1999 were 33 percent of its value, but this will rise to 40 percent by 2010.11

As Prakash suggests, Ford's ecological mentality is one that involved the least change in its internal organizations, institutions, and culture.12 Bill Ford has pushed FoMoCo toward more and more "beyond-compliance" environmental initiatives, but his collaboration with Jacques Nasser in this campaign has significantly redefined Ford as an automotive company. Even their plans to informationalize the car construct, Ford's supply chain, and the FoMoCo labor pool with more digital connectivity are only meant to find new markets and efficiencies for Ford Motor Company. Making the motors completely electric, largely hybrid, or entirely digital is essentially a coping strategy for a corporate rationality meaning to keep America "on wheels." Moving toward ISO140000 and Customer Connect are masterful maneuvers to avoid more restrictive regulations, generate greater good will, and win longstanding leadership within the automobile industry.

In the final analysis, we cannot adequately understand the greening of FoMoCo without seeing how many of its tactics and strategies now tacitly assume that an astute understanding of industrial ecology must be part and parcel of its ordinary business practices. The "green thinking" of Bill Ford, Jr.'s peculiar type is no longer radical resistance to capitalism's market values; it is instead a sort of ecological mentality that can serve as the standard operating procedures for transnational businesses. To preserve the political economy of its high-technology production, many transnational firms believe, like FoMoCo, that they too must function as "environmental protection agencies."13 Consequently, their proactive programs for continual growth would sustain existing industrial ecologies of mass consumption with green mass production techniques.14 This habitus presumes a suburban habitat, but a real concern for preserving such human habitats also defines or directs habitus in a strange ecological fashion. This is not just one of Ford's "better ideas." On the contrary, conservationist ethics, resource managerialism, and green rhetorics, then, have all congealed here in strategies of industrial ecology as an unusually cohesive power/knowledge formation, whose ideological utility is now an integral element of transnational business and its green regime of social normalization.

Footnotes



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