Why buying an old train station will be Bill Ford's greatest act

Bill Ford, speaking to a crowd gathered at the Detroit train station, says the city "isn't just where we do business -- it's our home."

Ask Bill Ford if the company's purchase of the long-abandoned Michigan Central Station is his legacy, and he'll politely sidestep the question with a bit of morbid humor.

"Don't put the shovel on me yet," he told Automotive News and Crain's Detroit Business in an interview last week. "I'm hoping that I have a little bit of a runway yet, and I certainly wouldn't like this to be my final act. … I don't really think in terms of legacy. I suppose at the end people will think what they think and write what they write, and I have no control over that."

He's right -- we're going to write what we want. And I'm going to right now: This will be Bill Ford's most impactful achievement, no matter how many acts he has left.

Ford's greatest passion, aside from collecting Mustangs, has been the environment. He's long championed sustainability efforts and has preached about the need to curb congestion with a new era of clean mobility, even as those at his own company dubbed him an "environmental wacko" and demanded he stop associating with all known or suspected members of Greenpeace.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a public interview where he doesn't mention his 2011 TED talk on reducing global gridlock.

The rehabilitation of Michigan Central Station is the means to that long-sought end.

Ford plans to make the depot the hub of a Detroit-based campus for the r&d of autonomous vehicles. If robot cars and electrification are indeed the future, then it's not a stretch to say that Ford Motor Co. will either fold or flourish based on what happens inside that monolithic structure.

You can't reduce congestion and gridlock without autonomous, electrified vehicles.

You can't build those autonomous, electrified vehicles without thousands of software developers and engineers.

You can't recruit those software developers and engineers without a one-of-a-kind workspace that will offer them what other's can't.

The company has often been viewed by outsiders as lagging General Motors, Waymo and others in the race to autonomous vehicles. This could be a differentiator, at least in terms of talent recruitment.

From birth, Ford has been defined by the company his great-grandfather started 115 years ago last Saturday.

The worst day of his life, he said, was during a deadly explosion and fire at the company's Rouge plant in 1999. One of the best was winning at Le Mans in 2016 with the latest GT supercar.

He may joke that he's not dead yet and has more work to do. But this single act, more than anything else he's done, could ensure his vision for a better world lives on long after he's gone.

You can reach Michael Martinez at mdmartinez@crain.com -- Follow Michael on Twitter: @MikeMartinez_AN

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