Ford teased out an image Thursday of its upcoming “Mustang-inspired” electric SUV tentatively dubbed the Mach 1. And the ambiguity of it all—inspired... how?—plus the extremely poorly received news that Ford’s dumping all its sedans and small cars for SUVs underscores the reality that this transition from old rigid automaker of the past into a nimble, exciting tech company of the future is underwhelming, to say the least.
By now, Ford has made it abundantly clear that—under the reign of CEO Jim Hackett, as was also true of his deposed predecessor Mark Fields—it wants to make a valiant jump into the autonomous and electric vehicle space. But the steps it has taken to date make it seem like the Blue Oval is more concerned with checking off boxes by way of introducing very low-risk ventures.
That’s evident with the Mach 1. It’s “Mustang-inspired”? What does that mean? It’ll have a similar name? The taillights? By this point every automaker sees the electric SUV as the vehicle of the future. Nothing about what Ford’s doing is inspiring or interesting, and I think it’s fairly obvious it’ll be a lukewarm crossover with a good zero to 60 mph time that can net about as much range as a Model X has for years already. Which, fine. It’ll probably attract some higher-end buyers but, uh, everyone else has something similar in the works? And are Mustang fanatics going to jump ship for a crossover?
The company has already dialed back plans to keep the Mach 1 name, after facing an intense backlash from Ford fans, which isn’t exactly a sign of confidence in what it’s doing.
After Hackett came on board, the automaker pitched a rather vague restructuring that calls for slashing costs and reinvesting what’s reaped into electrification and autonomy, with something like 40 electric and hybrid models planned by 2022. But no one seems to have any idea what that’ll look like when it materializes. Maybe Ford does, but one of the last investor presentations was woefully vague, short on major points but heavy on broad-brush graphs. A big problem here is that if Ford knows what it’s doing, nobody else seems to understand it.
I’ve appreciated Ford’s cautious approach to autonomy; there’s plenty of risks inherit to putting a robot-controlled car on the road, and companies have oversold the potential of AVs for years to a disastrous, fatal effect. Ford wants to roll out AVs in limited areas by 2021, has a new subsidiary dedicated to the effort, and is creating a hub for the r&d efforts in downtown Detroit. A self-driving car pizza delivery pilot is a smart way to tiptoe into uncertain waters.
But the electrification plans, and the product plans as a whole, leave me baffled. The Mach 1 seems like a desperate attempt by Ford to muscle its way into the room with some attention-grabbing details—a Mustang! (?) About 300 miles of range!—but in reality, the car’s likely going to resemble a modern Explorer, though on what’s apparently its own dedicated electric platform.
The problem for me is that Ford has the capacity and scale to introduce something that really pushes the envelope. Did General Motors move the earth with the Bolt EV? Nah. But by the time the Mach 1 hits the streets two years from now, GM will have had a tremendous head start with a reliable electric car that packs as much mileage into a single charge as Tesla’s Model 3, something most consumers today feel is necessary.
The made-strictly-for-compliance-purposes Focus electric hatchback, meanwhile, gets about 115 miles and costs nearly as much as the Bolt. A revamped Focus EV could’ve been an easy victory, something quick and to the point that would’ve really underscored that Ford’s serious about this, even if it’s starting with something basic.
What about any charging infrastructure to support this onslaught of cars by 2022? GM wants to let you power up with 180 miles of range in just 10 minutes, and has a plan in the works to bring that to life. Ford has... the Mach 1.
Sure, Ford probably has something neat in the works, but after the dramatic shift away from literally all cars to only crossovers and big trucks, it’s fairly obvious that everyone believed something more substantive to be released by now.
The company’s plan to kill all sedans drew praise as the sort of “bold” vision that’s necessary to retool a tired corporate behemoth, even if it’s setting itself up for a possible nightmare scenario if, say, gas prices were to spike again. So, yeah, it’s safe to say the expectation was that Ford had a laundry list of EV-related projects ready to fire off, and yet it’s nearing the end of 2018's third quarter and all we have is the maybe-named Mach 1 crossover EV that’s Mustang-inspired-in-taillights-only.
A new story from Forbes offers a possibility as to why: it’s scrambling.
At a splashy news conference at the Detroit auto show last January, Ford Motor boasted about a slew of 40 new electric vehicles and hybrids coming by 2022, an $11 billion investment. As bolts of electricity flashed across a giant video backdrop, Ford teased one EV in particular, the Mach 1, a high-performance, battery-powered SUV inspired by the iconic Ford Mustang.
But Ford didn’t show any images of the Mach 1 concept car that day, and for good reason: it didn’t exist.
Just weeks earlier, the company’s newly installed chief executive, James Hackett, pulled the plug on Ford’s first dedicated EV, due in 2020, because it was too generic, urging designers to create something that would stand out in a sea of expected plug-in cars. Instead of a “compliance car” to satisfy regulators, he said, it needed to be aspirational. In his typical probing style, he asked: “How are we going to win?”
So, with Tesla barreling toward the launch of its third vehicle, a sedan that had a backlog of 400,000 reservations and GM had a capable Bolt already on its way, Ford was still figuring out the design of its first dedicated EV.
On top of that, Ford’s struggling in Europe and China, President Donald Trump’s trade war is wreaking havoc on it, and analysts are growing tired of Hackett. During a call with Ford in July, one analyst asked Hackett if he’s even planning to stick around and see some of this plan come to bear. “Hell yes,” Hackett said. Its stock price continued to dive, now around $9.40 a share, giving already skittish investors something more to worry about.
Part of the issue here stems from the mindset around the canned, industrywide boilerplate response you get when you ask a car company about its future product plans: “we can’t comment on future product plans.” The idea is that automakers are so scared a competitor may steal an idea or do something better they don’t talk about what’s down the road at all, and more importantly, they want you to buy the stuff that’s in the showroom right now and not wait for what’s coming in a year or two. But when half the lineup is about to get axed and nobody understands what the hell the plan is, Ford has to understand why customers, industry watchers and analysts are perplexed.
One of the only real, truly moneymaking things Ford has going for it right now is the Ford F-150; on Thursday, it issued a recall for two million of them over a seat belt fire risk. Ford hasn’t offered up anything firm on how to move past the reliance on the F-150 beyond some platitudes about reinventing itself into the “mobility”-centric future of the industry.
And if it has something concrete, it sure hasn’t conveyed it to the public. That has to change.
Clarification: This story initially stated the Mustang-inspired Mach 1 might use the new Mustang/Explorer platform; Ford claims it will be built on a dedicated EV architecture instead.