Image: Susan Cischke
Carlos Osorio  /  AP file
“What we’re trying to do is integrate this into the business,” Susan Cischke, Ford's newly named senior vice president for sustainability, environment and safety engineering says of the automaker's environmental goals. “What we’re saying is it’s not just a sideline.”
updated 5/1/2007 4:24:48 PM ET 2007-05-01T20:24:48

Susan Cischke admits that her vision is a little fuzzy when she looks more than two decades into the future, but she still sees an internal combustion engine, albeit one smaller, lighter and more fuel-efficient than the engines of today.

And although the future is a bit cloudy to her and everyone else in the auto business, what Cischke sees could largely determine the future of her struggling employer, Ford Motor Co.

Cischke, 53, last week was appointed senior vice president for sustainability, environment and safety engineering, and she was given the almost impossible task of correctly predicting consumer wants, the price of gasoline and the development of fuel-efficient technologies for decades into the future.

“It is a little overwhelming in some ways,” she says of her new post, which is part of Ford Chief Executive Alan Mulally’s senior management team.

The biggest challenge, she says, is figuring out what people want to drive while at the same time making sure Ford is a good steward of the environment.

Ford has been good at making five-year plans but hasn’t been so good at looking beyond that, she said. Her job, while still being defined, will be to peer just beyond the five years and as far out as 2030 to help shape Ford’s products, factories and behavior.

Cischke, formerly Ford’s vice president of environmental and safety engineering, said that her elevation to the company’s operating committee shows that under Mulally, a former Boeing Co. executive hired last year to rescue Ford, global warming, greenhouse gasses and fuel economy will be at the forefront of the company’s decision-making.

“What we’re trying to do is integrate this into the business,” she said in an interview at Ford’s Dearborn headquarters. “What we’re saying is it’s not just a sideline.”

With $3-per-gallon gasoline and growing public awareness of environmental concerns, Cischke said her job is easier than it would have been a decade ago.

Research, she said, shows that Americans want more fuel-efficient cars, yet they don’t want to drive smaller vehicles. And they still have a need to move people, haul things and tow boats and other loads, she said.

“They’ll say, ’I want what I have today, but I want double the fuel economy of what I have today.’ So we’re saying, how do you really do that? It’s going to be a challenge along that line,” Cischke said.

After 2012, Cischke sees more efficient gasoline engines still being the big player in powering cars and trucks, and she also sees more clean diesels and biofuels. If there’s a battery technology breakthrough, she sees more plug-in gas-electric hybrids.

“A lot of work can be done in terms of just lightweight materials to then make the engines more efficient, downsizing the engines,” she said. “It’s always hard to predict invention in terms of battery technology, but we’re seeing some very promising things out there.”

The same array of vehicles will exist in 2030, she predicted, but hydrogen fuel cells will play a role.

“I think what it’s going to look like is a lot of the components we have today,” she said. “You’ll still see gas engines, you’re going to see diesel, but you might see a totally different type of vehicle. I think the vehicles are going to be smaller, and we’re going to have to figure out how with lightweight materials and different concepts that we can still give people the attributes they’re looking for.”

Ford lost $12.7 billion last year and has been forced to mortgage its factories and even its logo to set up a credit line of more than $20 billion as it undergoes a radical restructuring plan.

Cischke said that, with all the different technological possibilities, Ford has to figure out where the company should spend limited research dollars.

“All these new technologies do take resources,” she said. “These are all moving so fast that you’re just trying to figure how do you place your bets. And you only have so many chips,” she said.

Some environmentalists say Ford hasn’t been a good steward and that Cischke’s appointment doesn’t do a lot to convince them that the company is changing.

“She has spent a lot of time in Washington opposing environmental solutions like cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars,” said Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club’s global warming campaign.

He said Ford should spend more money marketing fuel-efficient vehicles, adding it instead spends its advertising dollars promoting sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks that make it the most profit.

“They market pickup trucks to people who want to haul lattes home from Starbucks, not just to farmers,” he said.

Ford will fall further behind Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. if it doesn’t come up with more fuel-efficient vehicles quickly, Becker said.

David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, said Ford knows it’s good business to pay attention to fuel efficiency and the environment.

“But if you’re in business and you want to be profitable, you’ve got to provide a range of products that people need,” he said.

“If you can provide significant improvement in fuel efficiency without compromising utility, that’s where everybody wants to go,” Cole added. “Unfortunately, the cost of doing that isn’t zero.”

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