A New Kind of Proving Ground: How We’re Reimagining the Future of Mobility in Detroit

By Bill Ford, Executive Chairman, Ford Motor Company

As Ford Motor Company ushers in its next era, it is building a new campus in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. The new Corktown campus will be a hub where Ford and its partners will work on autonomous and electric vehicles, and design urban mobility services and solutions that includes smart, connected vehicles, roads, parking and public transit.

After opening in 1913, Michigan Central Station quickly became the Midwestern equivalent of Ellis Island. It’s where dreamers in search of new jobs and new opportunities first set foot in Detroit. It was the place where we shipped troops off to war and where we welcomed them back home. The grand hall was large and majestic, and as a child I remember thinking only Detroit could make a statement like this.

Once the last train pulled out of the station 30 years ago, however, it became a place where hope left. The station became a symbol of Detroit’s hard times, a monument to the city’s struggles.

At Ford, we think it’s time for that to change. It’s time for Michigan Central Station to be restored and to remake this station into a place of possibility once again.

As the new owner of Michigan Central Station, we have big plans for the station and Corktown. This is not a symbolic gesture, but a bet on the future — one that envisions its role in the 21st century to be just as important to the American economy as Highland Park, Willow Run and the Rouge were in the 20th century.

That’s a big claim. But the automotive industry is going through some big changes, and just as Detroit has to reimagine what it is going to be, we have to do the same at Ford. We still design, build and sell the best cars and trucks in the world, but we must do more. My great-grandfather believed that Ford Motor Company had two missions: to make cars affordable so that everybody had the opportunity to own one, and to make people’s lives better. With more than 1 billion cars on the road globally, it’s safe to say we’ve succeeded with one mission. But are we still meeting the second mission?

A look at Michigan Central Station today, and a rendering of what it could look like when it reopens in 2022.

I’ve always believed that mobility makes freedom and progress possible. It allows us to live and work wherever we want. Yet mobility is getting harder to come by. In the future, even more people are expected to live in urban areas and city transportation systems are already strained.

The urgency has never been more apparent. We’re living through a new revolution today — an information revolution that’s even faster and more disruptive than that of the industrial age. A host of new technologies is redefining what’s possible for mobility — from new strides in electric and self-driving vehicles to ways that can make it easier to orchestrate traffic.

This is where we believe that Michigan Central Station — and Corktown — can play a crucial role. In this thriving Detroit neighborhood, we’re creating a proving ground where Ford and our technology partners can design and test services and solutions focused on improving people’s lives. After all, the urban streets of Corktown are where we’ll find those unexpected real-world challenges we just can’t fake in a lab.

Bill Ford at Michigan Central Station.

We’ve already moved 220 people from our autonomous and electric vehicle teams into a former factory in Corktown. Eventually, we are going to bring all of our mobility teams to this neighborhood — all with one mission: to make people’s lives better.

This will be the kind of campus that helps Ford fast-track its transformation, where fresh thinking and new development complement all the work currently underway in Dearborn and around the world.

Just as Henry Ford’s assembly line revolutionized the industry, we’re reimagining mobility. We are determined to be the company that interprets and harnesses these emergent forces in ways that improve lives and make cities cleaner and less congested, even as millions more people call them home.

That means smart cars, but also smart roads, smart parking and smart public transit systems, and ways for them all to talk to one another. Imagine new ways of making it easier for people who don’t own cars to get to their jobs; ways that make it easier for the poor and the elderly to get the food and health care they need to live better, longer, more independent lives.

We want the best startups, the smartest talent — the kind of thinkers, engineers and problem solvers who see things differently — to come and partner with us here in Detroit to get this done.

And of course, we want the community actively involved. Michigan Central Station — a place that many suggested should be torn down — can be a beacon of development, opportunity and possibility all over again. Our plan includes renovating the grand hall to make it as majestic as it once was. We want local shops and restaurants alongside all the inventors and dreamers. We are planning a modern workspace in the train station tower and will restore it all in an environmentally friendly way.

When my great-great-grandfather William Ford immigrated to America from Cork during Ireland’s potato famine, this part of the city was coined Corktown. It was for all the immigrants, like him, who came here with little more than hope — hope that this was a place where if you worked at it, you could make something of yourself, that you could make something better for your kids.

This was a place where you could imagine what’s possible. That’s what we want to do all over again, right here in Corktown — to reimagine what is possible.