But they expect one thing won't change: Ford's commitment, ever since founder Henry Ford started the business, to an inexpensive, reliable vehicle for the common person.
"It can't be 'gee whiz, high-tech' for technology's sake,' " said Scott Staley, Ford's fuel-cell manager. "It's still going to be the working man's car."
David Healy, an analyst with Burnham Securities Inc., said Ford lost sight of that vision in the 1990s, when it ballooned into non-vehicle areas like recycling. But Healy says the company is on its way to recovery.
"Ford is back down to its core auto business," Healy said.
The most radical change Ford anticipates in its next century is the conversion from gasoline to hydrogen fuel. Staley said he expects hydrogen fuel-cell cars on the road by 2020 and believes they'll make up 40 percent of Ford's sales by 2050.
In the meantime, Ford says it's the only U.S. automobile company aggressively developing an internal combustion engine that runs on clean-burning hydrogen, a technology Ford believes is a bridge to fuel cells. BMW AG also is developing hydrogen combustion engines.
Ford also expects major advances in safety. At Livernois Vehicle Development in Dearborn Heights, Mich., which makes prototype vehicles for Ford, a Lincoln Town Car is equipped with a red strip of light on the door that warns drivers if anything is in their blind spot.
As the driver backs up, a camera flashes the scene behind the car onto the dashboard.
Eventually, Ford engineer Ron Miller says, radars will make sure drivers are staying in their lanes while cameras watch the road in front of them, classifying every object on the road by its size and speed.
If anything goes wrong, seat belts will tighten and air bags will determine the position and weight of every passenger in order to best protect them. If a driver swerves, the vehicle will shift back and right itself electronically.
Prototypes are fitted with navigation systems that eventually will be able to reroute drivers around bad traffic. Wireless technology will let drivers dial their phone or pick a song from their MP3 player just by speaking.
"Surprise and delight is critical if we're going to sell vehicles in the future," Miller said. "We have a good idea of where we're going. We just have to race to get there."
Engineers now spend a great deal of time masking new technology. Hydrogen pumps look almost like regular fuel pumps. Tires look the same, but are embedded with tiny chips that constantly monitor tire pressure. Buttons still control the radio, but they'll be wireless so the driver can place them wherever is most comfortable.
"We're trying to make the changes very subtle," Natkin said. "People want to drive what they're familiar with."
The same is true for design, said Ford vice president J. Mays. Unlike the 1950s, when people had an optimistic, Jetsons-fueled vision of the future, buyers now are looking for familiarity.
"There's no appetite for the future right now, because the future is a pretty damn scary place," said Mays, who recently designed a futuristic prototype called the MA that is partly made from bamboo. "People are hanging on to what they know as a comfort zone. I'm hoping that changes."