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.