SAN FRANCISCO -- Some of the biggest names in tech are here at the
Chase H&Q Technology Conference
are all on the list.
What's a 96-year-old automaker doing at what is perhaps the premier technology conference? Stressing how e-enabled it is, of course, and expressing confidence that its big tech plans won't run afoul of regulators. And using surfing metaphors. Cool.
"We want to inject e-technology into every vehicle we produce," said James C. Gouin, chief financial officer for Ford's
During the 1970s and 1980s, Gouin said, the Big Three automakers stood transfixed before a tidal wave of imports from the Japanese. That failure to react resulted in a 30% loss in market share. Now, he said, the automakers aren't about to be blindsided again by another sea change -- the surge in commerce technology.
"The wave is coming again," he said. "And we want to be riding the curl this time."
Ford's ride on that technology swell is predicated, largely, on its participation in a business-to-business auto exchange with
. Through that exchange, which will allow the companies to procure materials over the Internet, Ford will be able to cut the cost of a purchase order to between $5 and $15 from $150, Gouin said.
But before that happens, Ford and its partners will have to get the go-ahead from the
Federal Trade Commission
. While the exchange was announced to much fanfare in February, that enthusiasm was somewhat muted when the FTC said it is conducting an inquiry into the possible antitrust issues that a partnership involving the world's largest automakers presents. Since then, antitrust concerns have steadily gained attention around this and other exchanges.
Wednesday, Gouin said neither Ford nor its partners expect any trouble from the FTC's inquiry, which auto executives have said should be wrapped up by September. He said the companies knew what they were getting themselves into when they went down the B2B road.
"You know, people ask, 'Did you guys anticipate that the FTC was going to get into your shorts on this?' " Gouin said. "Absolutely. Any time you get three companies like Ford, GM and DaimlerChrysler together in anything, you're going to get a call from the FTC."
Beating Their Brains Out
Perhaps as a way to allay those concerns, Gouin described how the exchange would have different advisory councils, comprising both buyers and suppliers, to govern its operations. One of the FTC's concerns about B2B exchanges, antitrust experts say, is the possibility of major buyers actually exerting pricing pressure on the companies they buy supplies from. Another is that companies would collude to set prices.
"There's no way that we could do that," Gouin said. "There's no way we would do that, or even want to do that. At the end of the day, we three companies are all still competitors, and we all want to beat each other's brains out."
When they haven't been beating each other's brains out, though, Gouin said some progress has been made on the exchange. For example, he said, an underlying technology to run it has been agreed upon. That could be significant, as many analysts have wondered how archrivals Oracle and
, technology partners in the exchange, would be able to bundle their technologies together. Gouin didn't provide details on the technology before he ducked into a restricted breakout session with investors.
Still, being all about tech didn't help Ford today. With the
slipping 1.5% and the
Nasdaq Composite Index
plunging some 5% Wednesday, Ford slid 13/16, or 1.5%, to close at 52 1/4.