DETROIT -- In 2004, a coalition of environmental groups lampooned Bill Ford, depicting him as a cartoon Pinocchio because Ford Motor Co. had failed to live up to its commitments to improve the fuel economy of SUVs.
Such charges were painful for Bill Ford, who has always tried to portray himself as an auto executive who cares about a greener planet.
But the intervening years have vindicated the great-grandson of Henry Ford. His company, indeed the entire industry, has embraced higher fuel economy and environmental stewardship to a degree that was unimaginable a decade or two ago. Now, with the automaker racking up steady profits, Bill Ford is ready to take the environmental debate into new areas and push the company to meet new challenges.
In 2006, Bill Ford relinquished his CEO role to industry outsider Alan Mulally, who led Ford Motor back into the black.
Now the automaker is embarking on one of the most ambitious product offensives in its history, centered on better fuel economy. The company is launching a Focus Electric, a hybrid small minivan called the C-Max and several fuel-efficient versions of its Fusion sedan, including a plug-in hybrid capable of 100 mpg.
Ford Motor has moved from industry laggard to among the leaders in fuel economy. Even pickup buyers are embracing F-series pickups with V-6 EcoBoost engines, as opposed to traditional V-8s.
Mulally has actively promoted fuel economy as part of the automaker's mission. But Bill Ford, now the auto company's executive chairman, championed the cause before Mulally's arrival and before many in the industry took it seriously.
Auto analyst John Casesa, a longtime Ford observer, said, "The world has come around to his way of thinking, especially about the environment."
During a dinner that Bill Ford hosted for a small group of journalists at the Detroit auto show, he said: "We were never seen as a fuel economy leader. Even though we're delivering it now, our reputation has to catch up."
In wide-ranging remarks during that dinner, Bill Ford made it clear that the big-picture issues go beyond the environment.
"In my lifetime, I can actually see where we're going to solve the environmental impact of cars. But an 11-day traffic jam with clean cars is still an 11-day traffic jam," he said, referring to an epic 2010 traffic snarl in China's Hebei province.
"As we're solving this one big societal issue, this other one is looming -- and we'll solve that, too."
He said gridlock is more than just an economic problem: "It becomes a human rights issue if you can't deliver health care and food around major urban areas."
Ford has been thinking about "how we're going to have mobility in a world of urbanization and 75 percent of the world's population living in cities. We're going to have 4 billion cars and 9 billion people by midcentury. How are we going to move those people around?
"We, the car companies, along with our partners, have to figure this out so we can provide mobility."
Does that mean that Ford, chairman of a car company, is OK with public transportation? "There's this fallacy that we would be against public transport," he said.
Ford is intrigued by new business models that provide innovative ways for transporting people. He pushed an alliance between Ford and Zipcar, a car-sharing service, which put about 1,000 Ford Focuses on 250 college campuses for short-term rentals. "We need to not be frightened by but embrace" these new business models, he said.
Bill Ford sees more such partnerships in Ford's future. But he also believes Ford can keep its finger on the pulse of innovation without having to buy startup companies. "I'm not sure we need to own the business model. That prevents you from being nimble if things change. You don't need to own the app; you just need to make it available."
Bill Ford learned through experience in the environmental debate the importance of being nimble and not betting too heavily on any one technology for vehicle propulsion.
"If we were meeting seven to eight years ago, we'd be talking hydrogen. If we were meeting three to four years ago, we'd be talking about biofuels, principally cellulosic ethanol. Here today, we're talking about electric. If you cast your mind back a few years, we've had several iterations of where this nation was headed," he said.
"I keep going back to our strategy," which involves letting customers choose from a wide array of options, he said. The 2013 Fusion sedan, for example, will be sold with plug-in hybrid, conventional hybrid and two fuel-efficient EcoBoost powertrains. The Ford brand has dropped the V-6 engine from the Fusion lineup in favor of a four-cylinder turbocharged, gasoline direct injection EcoBoost engine.
The flood of new technology means that Ford Motor is working with a host of new suppliers, from Microsoft Corp. to startup battery makers.
"To me it's exciting," Ford said. "It's a really fun time to be in the car business."
The auto industry's 2009 crisis, coupled with the wave of new technology, brought a renewed awareness of the importance of manufacturing to America, he said.
Bill Ford: “It’s exciting. It’s a really fun time to be in the car business.”
Wall Street, long the destination of top university graduates, no longer is so attractive because of its "loss of reputation" during the financial crisis, Ford said. In contrast, the auto industry has regained some of its lost cachet.
"If any good came out of the dark days that this industry went through" in 2006-09, he said, "it's that there's a national recognition that industry does matter."
Now the auto industry is attracting a new generation of talented, open-minded young people, Ford said. "Ten years ago they wouldn't have seen us as being the solver of the issues; they would have seen us as being the creator of the issues. We were sort of the bad guy. People ask me, 'Why have you always had this environmental ethic?'"
It's because, he said, "I never wanted us to be like the tobacco [companies], where our employees would have to apologize to their family and friends for working there. If that happens, we are not going to get the best and brightest."