If you’re not plugged into Big Data these days, you’re not paying attention. Ford, which has been poring over huge blocks of information since the days of the legendary “Whiz Kids,” who brought financial controls to the company during World War II. Remember Robert McNamara, one of the data-driven architects of the Vietnam War? Before that, he was a Whiz Kid. That's the group below.

Ford's Whiz Kids

Since then, there has been an epic battle at auto companies between “car guys” and “bean counters,” as car guy extraordinaire Bob Lutz (ex-GM exec) might put it. But we need the bean counters, too, a point seconded by John Viera, Ford’s global sustainability director.

“We use green analytics to figure out what kind of products we should be producing,” said Viera, who is addressing the Net Impact conference on this topic Friday. “Ford wants to do its share in stabilizing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at 450 parts per million. And we can theoretically calculate what our CO2 output should be in 10, 20 or 30 years.”

International CO2 emissions goals

Ford has an actual carbon dioxide number, or at least a range, and a sense of what mix of gas, electric, natural gas and hydrogen cars it needs to field in, say, 2030, but it’s not going to release that to me. “That would give a significant advantage to our competitors,” he said. Instead of its own numbers, Ford offers the chart above with projections of where we need to be internationally with CO2 emissions.

Obviously, there are all kinds of wild cards here, including changing government regulations, technical breakthroughs (cheap, long-range batteries for one) and the public’s willingness to buy what Ford is selling — like electric cars, for instance.

To help convince the sometimes fickle public, and fleet buyers, too, Ford crunched the data and came up with the Fleet Purchase Planner. It’s software on iPads at dealers, and they can use it to calculate the well-to-wheels impact of, say, battery electrics in Kentucky, where the grid is mostly coal plants. “It’s a tool purchase managers can use to discuss their options with customers,” said Tim Wallington, a senior technical leader in environmental science (also known as Ford’s climate guy).

The planner weighs such variables as the amount of coal required to charge a plug-in hybrid battery, and factors in vehicle emissions and fuel costs.

Viera said tools like the planner can be used to settle questions that come up, like the one circulated (and discredited) that said Hummers are really cleaner, via lifecycle analysis, than the Toyota Prius. It’s actually really useful, because there isn’t a whole lot of data on where battery electrics are your cleanest choice, and where they’re not. If you’re in California, you’re golden in more ways than one — it’s a very clean grid.

Ford is also looking at the long-term numbers for various biofuels, some not even on the market yet, and studying the impact of the rare earth metals used heavily in green cars. It’s all about Big Data and what to do with it.

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