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Ford CEO: Together, let’s take back the streets for living

With the power of AI and the rise of autonomous and connected vehicles, we’re capable of a complete disruption and redesign of the surface transportation system.

Traffic congestion at the mouth of New York’s Holland Tunnel Hulton Archive / Getty Images

This is a contributed article by Jim Hackett, president and CEO of Ford Motor Company, who is delivering a keynote address at CES on Tuesday, Jan. 9, at 9 am PT. All opinions expressed are his own. A version of this op-ed was originally published on Medium.

Over the past century, the automobile turned out to be the ultimate disruptor to human’s lives and our civic way of life.

In one of his earliest ads, Henry Ford declared that he wanted to open the highways for all humankind. That idea, in action, gave us extraordinary new freedom  —  to travel great distances and to get around town like never before. This system at its inception had great attraction. It spawned new industries, thousands of new companies, and drove generations of personal and economic growth.

Yet, over time, as our towns and cities were designed around the automobile, roads overtook the community centers. Where people once gathered in the streets and town squares, there are now highways and multi-lane roads. Perhaps worst of all, time we used to spend with each other is now often wasted in congestion and traffic. Thirty years ago, we spent an average of 16 hours in traffic per year. Now, we spend 38 hours. The price we paid for the freedom to move was the creation of a world where roads were built for cars.

Today, the transport systems of most global cities have reached capacity. And yet, more and more of us seek the benefits of great urban centers. Faced with this rapid urbanization and the pollution and congestion that comes with it, we have to admit that the model of the past is no longer tenable. It’s clear that we need to update cities to more efficiently move people and goods. In the process, we will improve the quality of life for all.

One of the most powerful solutions is to bring our streets into the sharing era and the sharing economy. New mobility technologies, created with people at the center, can help us share our streets in new ways, more equitably, providing more access for more people to everything our cities have to offer.

It’s ironic that our streets have been left out of the sharing era, since they were the original shared resource in urban areas. Before cars, city streets acted as bustling social hubs where neighbors and families could gather, vendors could sell their goods and children could play. Over time, parks and public spaces were sacrificed for parking lots and highways, and cities came to be associated with social isolation. Streets compose one-third of public land in our cities. By developing smart vehicles for a smart world, we can reverse this trend and return these valuable resources to the people.

Now is our opportunity to reclaim the streets for living  —  to take major leaps in the direction of building a true City of Tomorrow and reimagine how our streets and cities function much more efficiently. With the power of AI and the rise of autonomous and connected vehicles, we have technology capable of a complete disruption and redesign of the surface transportation system for the first time in a century. Everything from parking, traffic flow and goods delivery can be radically improved  —  reducing congestion and allowing cities to transform roads into more public spaces.

That is why Ford is taking a user-centered, systems-level design approach to mobility. We need to step back and look broadly at how the overall transportation operating system can help us all lead better, more productive lives. It is not good enough to just implement this new technology without first fully understanding how it is going to make people’s lives better. We need to get this new design right.

How do we do that? We have begun by collaborating with cities, civic organizations, urban planners, technologists and designers around the world to develop new ways of moving people and goods.

The challenge is enormous. We are talking about orchestrating the entire transportation network that is already woven into the fabric of our urban environments and civic life. But it is a task we must undertake, because the old system is failing. We will reaffirm our shared humanity and build communities that inspire and support all of us. That is the kind of sharing economy we need. We look forward to sharing more at CES.

Jim Hackett is president and CEO of Ford Motor Company; he is also a member of the company’s board of directors. Under Hackett’s leadership, together with Bill Ford, Ford is committed to becoming the world’s most trusted mobility company, designing smart vehicles for a smart world that help people move more safely, confidently and freely. He has also been chairman of Ford Smart Mobility LLC, a subsidiary of Ford formed to accelerate the company’s plans to design, build, grow and invest in emerging mobility services. Hackett was vice chairman of Steelcase, the global leader in the office furniture industry, from 2014 to 2015. Reach him @Ford.

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