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Top secret Ford plan: Recyclable vehicles

Piquette Project aims to 'fight Toyota and everybody else and come out on top.'

Bryce G. Hoffman / The Detroit News

While Ford Motor Co. will capture the attention of the nation today when it announces a major corporate downsizing, the automaker also has begun a secret research project in hopes of producing recyclable, environmentally friendly cars of the future.

The effort -- known internally as the "Piquette Project," after Ford's famed Piquette Avenue factory in Detroit where the Model T was developed nearly a century ago -- was launched last year by Chairman and CEO Bill Ford Jr. as part of his campaign to revive the company's spirit of innovation.

"The goal is to help us do with products what we did with manufacturing at the Rouge Plant," said Ford spokesman Jon Pepper, referring to the $2 billion environmentally friendly makeover of the Dearborn industrial complex.

Pepper said Ford hopes to show some of the first fruits of the Piquette Project by 2008, the 100-year anniversary of the Model T.

Bill Ford last year asked his top executives to create a cross-functional team loosely patterned after the one his great-grandfather, Henry Ford, assembled a century ago at the Piquette plant.

That team helped create the moving assembly line and developed the Model T, the car that made automobiles accessible to the masses.

Bill Ford's goal is nearly as ambitious: develop renewable, clean and safe vehicles that would be both socially conscious and provide a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

By the middle of last year, Ford had assembled a group of what Pepper described as "the best thinkers in our company." They were given a clean sheet of paper and told to tackle the tough issues of environmental sustainability, novel design and engineering and passenger safety.

Using a "war room" inside Ford's world headquarters in Dearborn, the team began meeting in early summer under the direction of Tim O'Brien, vice president of corporate relations; Gerhard Schmidt, vice president of research and advanced engineering; Nancy Gioia, director of sustainable mobility technologies and hybrids; and William McDonough, an environmental consultant instrumental in developing the new Dearborn Truck Plant at the Rouge Complex.

Camilo Pardo, the designer of the Ford GT, was tapped to head the project's design efforts.

"We thought it was important to get out of the demands of the regular product development cycle," Pepper explained, though he added that senior product development executives like Derrick Kuzak have been kept apprised of the team's work in order to make sure it is grounded in reality.

The existence of the Piquette Project was first revealed Sunday by Time magazine on its Web site. Bill Ford and his efforts to turn around Ford are the subject of a cover story reaching newsstands this week.

"Piquette helps institutionalize innovation," Bill Ford told Time. "My goal is to fight Toyota and everybody else and come out on top."

While most major automakers have teams of people assigned to look into the future and develop new vehicles and technology, the Ford effort is notable because the automaker is counting on innovation to return the struggling company to greatness.

Douglas Brinkley, a historian and author of "Wheels for the World," an exhaustive history of Ford published in 2003, said Sunday "it will be very interesting to see what Bill Ford plans to do. In a sense it's the same old story -- he'll either restore Ford or preside over its decline."

Before Sunday, the existence of the Piquette Project was known only to those directly involved in the research and a handful of top executives.

Pepper said the company does not plan to make an official announcement about the Piquette Project when it unveils its restructuring plan today, which is expected to call for at least 25,000 job cuts.

Pepper said they will not be able to say much, both because of the need to protect the work from competitors and because it is still too soon to tell just what will come of the project. While it's difficult to put a timetable on the project, the goal is to show some results by 2008.

"It could be vehicles and it could be elements of vehicles," Pepper said, adding that the group is working on a variety of projects, including ways to make vehicles safer, stronger, lighter and cheaper.

Rival Toyota Motor Corp. also has made mitigating the automobile's impact on the environment a central goal of its advanced research efforts.

"Bill Ford was talking about that issue long before Toyota was," Pepper said.
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