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Ford CEO must balance creeping car technology and consumer privacy

Andy Serwer
·Editor in Chief

If you’re the CEO of one of the biggest consumer-facing companies on the planet, you better be paying attention to customers. It’s a point not lost on Ford (F) CEO Mark Fields. In a recent interview with Fields, in Ford’s Dearborn, Mich., F-150 assembly plant, the CEO spoke to a couple of issues that reflect both concerns and changes in buying behavior in the marketplace.
 
As Ford and other carmakers incorporate ever-more technology in their vehicles, they find themselves working hand in glove with technology behemoths like Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOGL), both of which are expert at collecting and utilizing consumers’ data. That information would include information like when and where consumers drive to, driver safety, phone calls they make while driving and more. At this point it’s unclear exactly what could be done with this data and how valuable it is, but it’s still coveted. The tricky part for automakers like Ford is to first try to collect data themselves for their own use, and second, try to prevent tech partners from collecting all the data for their use and/or from gathering more than consumers want.
 
I asked Fields about working with companies like Apple and Google and concerns about data and privacy. “As a company we feel that the privacy of customers' data is the most important thing,” he says. “And we want to be viewed as trusted stewards of that so we do a lot of work, a lot of rigorous testing to make sure we can protect our customers' data but we also have to realize that going forward, again, looking at smart mobility... data and technology plays an important piece of that and that’s why, for example, we set up [a research center] in Silicon Valley." By the end of the year, Ford will have  strong presence in the tech hub, Fields says, "because we want to be viewed as part of the community there."
 
Ford also recently announced it was discontinuing U.S. production of its Focus sedan and moving that production overseas. It’s a reflection of the fact that U.S. consumers are less sanguine about buying smaller cars these days, as gas prices have trended lower. Fields acknowledged as much, saying, “I think when you look at it the reason we take that decision is, as a business you really have to look at improving the competitiveness of your business. And in this case, this decision made sense for us. When you look at small cars, we have seen a shift of consumers going from small sedans to small SUVs, vehicles like our Escape. So that shift has really taken shape over the last two years or so. But the Focus is still an important product for us. It was the No. 2 best-selling vehicle across the world last year. And we’re going to continue to reinvest and bring out the next generation towards the end of the decade.”
 
When the customer is king, it pays a CEO to listen.