Published on November 23rd, 2019 | by Jennifer Sensiba0
The Mustang Mach-E’s Backstory: A Fundamental Shift At Ford (And A Nod To Tesla)
November 23rd, 2019 by Jennifer Sensiba
When I first heard that Ford was going to reveal the Mustang Mach-E at the Hawthorne airport, I thought that it was a jab at Tesla. Presenting an EV within spitting distance of the Design Center and SpaceX seemed a bold move. After all, this is Elon’s backyard, right?
The organizers told me that the venue was the only place with the space to do everything they wanted (tech presentations, reveal show, test drives), and that may be right, but after learning more about the vehicle and its history, I do know that it definitely couldn’t have been meant as a jab.
If it was meant to mean anything, it would have to be a love letter of sorts. The teams that created the Mach-E did things the Tesla way, and probably much more deeply than our readers are aware. Doing this not only proves that Tesla was right about many things, but it also shows that Ford is big enough to do things the right way, despite that it might look to many like they copied Elon’s homework.
In my last article, I explained why I think the Mustang Mach-E is true to Ford and Mustang tradition. At the same time, though, there’s no denying that the vehicle is heavily inspired by Tesla’s way of doing things. While there are the obvious things (drivetrain layout, over-the-air updates), there’s a bigger backstory that shows Ford is going through a philosophical shift and not just trying to copy Tesla’s designs.
(Disclosure: Ford flew me to Los Angeles for the reveal and provided me with food and lodging to cover this car. That said, I didn’t take their word that this was a Mustang, and I didn’t take their word for anything. I don’t think bias is a problem here.)
The More Obvious Similarities To The Tesla Approach
When I was in the tech briefing, it didn’t take long to figure out how Tesla fans were going to react. The big center screen, the reasonably big frunk, over-the-air (OTA) software updates, and many other things would be seen as a straight-up copy of Tesla. And, you guys are right. They looked at what was working well for Tesla and decided to do the same thing.
There were a number of other similarities that weren’t as obvious in the announcement, but were still there.
One thing that stood out at the technical briefing was its approach to mobile and home charging. Instead of just including a 120V emergency charger, Ford chose to do what Tesla has been doing for years: it planned to include a 120/240V charger that can connect to multiple types of outlets. While not technically accurate to call it a charger (it’s EVSE — electric vehicle service equipment — to feed an onboard charger), they are calling it a “mobile charger” like Tesla’s Mobile Connector.
They’re also going to offer a home station that not only charges faster, but will have connected features to allow remote control and management of home charging. Like a Tesla.
There are also going to be aero wheels. While they will come in regular and aero versions without removable portions, they got a lot of feedback on removable covers from journalists, and it’s early enough in the process that they might yet make changes.
Either way, they are thinking about aero and non-aero options, and that shows some analysis and replication of Tesla’s ways.
While quite different from Tesla drive units, they are taking a similar approach. Instead of mounting different components (inverter, controller hardware, etc.) onto the vehicle separately from the motor and planetary gear reduction/differential, they put it all together in one package.
The Less Obvious Ways Ford Followed Tesla’s Leadership in EVs
The similarities with Tesla aren’t skin deep, though. There’s a backstory that shows that Ford is taking the things they’ve learned into their bones, and into their DNA.
Running an organization, especially a large, global organization, is tough. Leadership has to strike the right balance between discipline and agility. Too much discipline and too little agility, and the competition will take the risks you wouldn’t and take it all away from you. Too much agility without discipline, and you get too much internal chaos to get things done.
On the one hand, you have organizations like Tesla. Some call it Silicon Valley culture. Others call it disruption. Agility is key, and change must be not only rapid, but constant. Making cars is hard, though, and the Tesla way ran into great challenges when scaling up Model 3 production.
On the other hand, you have the Toyota way of doing business: discipline, discipline, discipline. Changes come slow, but things are predictable and controlled. New things are done, but only very cautiously and slowly, because chaos is bad for production and reliability. This leads to a great reputation during times of slow change, but during times of rapid change, organizations like Tesla tend to get a foothold by being there first, even if riddled with imperfections that need ironed out later.
(Hat tip to my friend Ed Niedermeyer for much of the last several paragraphs of information.)
While other automakers have flirted a bit with Tesla’s methods and found them untenable (or undesirable) for their much larger and more established organizations, Ford decided to try something different. It decided to do what Lockheed Martin did with Skunkworks — create a little baby Tesla inside its organization, but insulated enough from it to not be suffocated by the discipline.
While the name Edison isn’t necessarily a good thing among people who know what kind of a man he really was, it means something different to Ford. Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were great friends, and Ford considered Edison one of his heroes. To Ford, Team Edison is the team to be on if you want to innovate and do new things.
Ford executives knew that doing things the traditional way (a variant of the Toyota Production System) is good for stability, but the amount of innovation needed to come up with many new electric models over just a few years was going to take an effort that more resembled a startup than that of a big corporation.
So, Ford created a mini-Tesla organization, put it in separate buildings, mostly disconnected it from the usual Ford command structure, and set it to work. That’s how the Mach-E came to be, and that’s how things are going to continue to change more rapidly at Ford than they’ve changed in a long time.
Of course, also like Tesla, these changes aren’t going to be cheap, and required a mountain of debt.
The California vs. Trump Issue
Another great example of Ford’s changed ways is that it is siding with California in the legal battle over emissions.
Without getting into the merits of both sides’ positions (I’ve done that elsewhere), the important thing here is that California didn’t put a gun to anybody’s head.
Trump did, though. GM and others decided to throw in with the Trump administration in hopes of having lower standards to keep. Ford, Volkswagen, Honda, and several others decided to voluntarily keep higher standards nationwide, and for that, Trump sent federal investigators to harass and intimidate them.
Despite this, Ford is committed to higher standards. It didn’t have to do any of this, and has plenty of reasons not to.
Direct Marketing (Sort Of)
Ford isn’t in a position to do what Tesla does with direct sales. It already operates in many states that require dealers, and has obligations to its existing dealers even in states that might allow direct sales of the Mustang Mach-E.
However, Ford is doing the direct marketing thing as much as possible within those constraints. It’s allowing people to “reserve” a Mach-E production slot (like Tesla has done with all of its models), but not actually pre-order the vehicle. When the time comes, the final sale will still happen at an EV-certified Ford dealer.
This does, however, put a lot of pressure on dealers to become EV certified.
Ford Does Keep Its Unique Flavor, Though
Despite doing so many things the Tesla way, Ford isn’t becoming a Tesla clone. And it shouldn’t!
Even if Tesla’s vehicles, philosophy, and style are a perfect fit for you, they’re not a fit for everybody on your block. There are people who would rather have a Porsche, a Ferrari, a Chevy, or a Ford. We all have different tastes, and yes, even the people buying a used Yugo have something that drew them to that.
I go into the ways that Ford is keeping its own flavor in much more depth in my other article about the Mach-E, but in short, Ford has gone to great lengths to make sure the Mach-E is still a Mustang. That effort will surely educate its future efforts to continue being true to the blue oval going forward.
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