Ford CEO reveals a tactic automakers use to take ideas from the competition

Ford CEO Mark Fields visited Business Insider’s office ahead of the New York Auto Show and said some interesting things about how the automaker learns from its competitors.

“We do teardowns of all major competitive vehicles,” Fields said, in response to a question about whether the company would dismantle the new Tesla Model X SUV in the same way that it took apart the Model S sedan.

“I’m a big believer that you should never shut yourself off to learning.”

He was echoing an entertaining comment he made about the Model S on an earnings call in 2014: “[W]e have driven the Model S, torn it down, put it back together, and driven it again — we’re very familiar with that product,” he said.

“We learn things about technology and we learn things about costs,” Fields told BI. “And in many cases we can say that we do that better, and in some cases we say, ‘Oh my gosh, here’s a neat idea, how do we adopt that into our process?'”

Tesla gets a lot of attention for its innovative, high-tech electric vehicles, but Ford competes globally in numerous segments and needs to keep pace with everyone. The car maker of course buys all the competitive models that it sends to it teardown garages and is always looking to keep pace with new design and engineering challenges.

Fields quipped that they always “negotiate to get a good deal,” when they’re buying the cars.

In the same conversation, Fields noted that Ford is also rolling out over-the-air (OTA) software updates; it’s part of the new Sync 3 infotainment system that the company has used since 2007 and developed originally with Microsoft. Sync Connect is a modem-base addition to a system that’s undergirded by Blackberry software.

“It’s coming,” Fields said.

Tesla has delighted owners with OTA updates that can make a Model S seem like a new car literally overnight. For example, owners with vehicles equipped for Autopilot semi-autonomous driving woke up after the update was released last year to find their cars ready to drive themselves.

Major automakers are now moving in this direction. General Motors will be using OTA updates in a limited manner. They’re unlikely to be quite as ambitious as Tesla, still a small company that can push the envelope on technology.

The big players in the industry have been happy to observe CEO Elon Musk’s experiments and follow them when they make sense.

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