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Ford’s design chief praises Tesla

·Senior Columnist
The Ford Focus electric vehicle. Source: Ford

Detroit scoffed at Tesla (TSLA) during the upstart automaker’s early days, with many Big Auto execs figuring the company would flame out like so many other automotive wannabes.

That obviously hasn’t happened, and the big car companies have begun to pay close attention to Tesla’s products and future plans.

Like other automakers, Ford recently opened a lab in Silicon Valley, Tesla's home base. 

“Tesla has proven what a lot of people thought was not possible without 50 years of experience building cars,” Moray Callum, the top designer at Ford Motor Co. (F), said during a recent meeting with reporters in New York City. “The introduction of a new carmaker is not as impossible as once thought.”

Building cars is technologically daunting and expensive. Unlike software or digital technology ventures, an automaker must commit to a complex manufacturing process burdened with regulatory requirements, and convince buyers to commit to one of the costliest products they’ll ever purchase. Reaching scale and becoming profitable typically requires unit sales in the hundreds of thousands. Even Tesla, beloved by its customers, isn’t profitable after more than a decade in operation.

Nonetheless, Tesla and its visionary CEO, Elon Musk, are changing the way century-old automakers design and build cars.

Those changes may not be evident in Ford’s current fleet, but they’re likely to be during the next decade, a period Callum predicts “is going to result in the biggest changes in cars we’ve seen in the last 50 years.”

Autonomous vehicle technology allowing cars to drive themselves is maturing and already showing up on some models. A government-backed quest for cleaner fuels is giving all automakers an incentive to develop cars running on electricity, hydrogen, natural gas and other gasoline alternatives. A booming consumer class in the developing world will put millions of new cars on roads not equipped to handle them, especially in urban areas and megacities.

On top of that, Internet access is now being piped into cars, expanding their capabilities. And rich companies such as Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOGL) are getting into the business, not necessarily to build engines and transmissions but to produce the software that’s now as essential to driving as wheels and tires.

As self-driving cars become reality, Callum sees two types of vehicles emerging: Some with steering wheels and traditional controls — for people who still enjoy driving — and others with no steering wheels, because they won’t be necessary when computers guide the vehicle. The changing role of the driver will present new design challenges and opportunities. “There will be some strange pods out there,” Callum predicts.

Cities, in particular, will require much smaller vehicles that operate differently than cars today. Among other things, they might be shared rather than owned, similar to the way bike networks operate in New York, Austin, Denver and many European cities. That, in theory, would allow each car to get more use, potentially cutting down on the number of vehicles clogging urban streets.

The accelerated evolution of the car will test what drivers really want from their automobiles. While futuristic technology always has its fans, many consumers will insist that cars continue to look like the box on wheels they’ve been accustomed to their whole lives. “Tesla’s got this fantastic technology,” Callum says, “but they chose to do a car that looks like a car rather than a science project. The psychology of what people want is not going to change.”

Tesla and Musk might feel otherwise.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.