Ford seemed reticent to jump onto the electric car scene. Instead, over the last year it focused on key fuel saving and performance technologies like dual-clutch shifting, direct injection, and hybrids. Its hybrids include the new Ford Fusion Hybrid which boasts great gas mileage thanks to its revamped hybrid powertrain.
Meanwhile, Ford's domestic competitors prepared to jump onto the electric car scene. GM has high hopes riding on its Chevy Volt plug-in, while Chrysler has two converted models and an electric roadster in the works.
After months of talks with Magna International Inc. over a partnership to produce an electric vehicle, Ford finally privately decided to jump on the electric boat. What really convinced Ford, its executives revealed, was a surprise from its partner Magna. In September, Magna pulled up to Ford in Dearborn, Michigan in a fully retrofitted plug-in Focus, something Ford had no idea they had finished.
"It was a phenomenal car. We were highly, highly impressed," said Ford’s Lisa Drake.
Today, Ford made its plans public with Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. announcing that his company is getting into the electric vehicle business according to Detroit News. Ms. Drake will be leading Ford's half of the new efforts. She says that the soaring gas costs, which went up to $4/gallon over the summer, were a key reason Ford decided to go electric. And she expects gas to go back up in the future, "We were modeling $10 a gallon. We were modeling $12 a gallon. We decided we need to be ready the next time this comes around."
However, while Magna might have convinced Ford that it was time to bring the technology to production, Ford has been quietly working on electric cars for a long time under the codename "Project M". The project saw a partnership with Southern California Edison and the Department of Energy to retrofit test fleet of Ford Escape Hybrids to plug-ins in 2007. However, Magna's aggressive development of its plug-in technology and the soaring gas prices convinced Ford to take the tech from the test track to the streets.
Last spring, Greg Frenette, the head of Ford's zero emissions vehicle programs, announced to his team that they would be delivering a new production hybrid by 2012. The new hybrid will be a plug-in iteration of the Escape Hybrid which Ford has been selling since 2004. The new model can plug directly into the wall and can go up to 40 MPH before having to burn gasoline. The fuel economy figures for the vehicle under optimal conditions are 120 MPG in city driving tests and 70 MPG on the highway. Mr. Frenette states, "[The announcement] gave [my engineers] a sense that this was more than just an academic exercise. But this is what we're supposed to be doing. Moving this into production is what this is all about."
However, Ford isn't stopping there. In addition to its plug-in hybrid, its partnership with Magna will deliver a new battery-only vehicle based on Ford's global Focus platform, due out in 2010. It will not have a gas motor and will feature a range of 100 miles on a charge which is plenty for most Americans, says Ford.
Not all are convinced that Ford's electric foray will see success, though. Analyst Jim Hall of Analytics LLP in Birmingham, MI states, "There still is not a viable market for a pure electric vehicle because of the range limitations. It's psychological. They're going to have to re-educate consumers."
However, he does see some benefits for Ford. He states, "Building electric vehicles gets the emissions monster off their backs, and it also helps their fleet fuel economy average in a big way."
The new electric vehicles will help Ford meet the stricter "California emissions" that multiple states are expected to soon adopt, courtesy of President Obama's push to allow states the right to regulate their own emissions standards. And whatever critics may say, Ted Robertson is convinced that Ford and Magna are a match made in electric heaven. He says Magna could have built the whole vehicle if they wanted. He adds, "Magna wants to be a leader and in the forefront of any new technology being developed. There are very few suppliers who can do a whole vehicle and Magna is one of those. It was a great marriage."