Ford's first EV, the Comuta concept car, debuted in 1967.

Ford's first battery electric, the Transit Connect, launches late this year. It is low volume and aimed at business fleets.  (Source: Car and Driver)

The Ford Focus Electric will launch in 2011 and will be a battery electric vehicle with a 100 mile range.
We catch up with Ford on how it intends to make electric vehicles a smart buy for consumers

If you look at release dates merely, one might think that Ford is a bit behind the times with fully electric vehicles.  After all, GM is launching the Chevy Volt and Nissan is launching the LEAF EV in 2010.  Ford's battery electric vehicle (BEV), the Ford Focus Electric, won't land until late next year.  

But if you look at Ford's overall approach and the slew of incoming offerings you realize just how seriously the company 
is taking electrification -- they're just being a bit smarter about it, offering more of a "portfolio" of different kinds of electric offerings.  And anyone who knows investing knows a diversified portfolio is always the smartest investment.

We sat down with Sherif Marakby, Director of Ford's Hybrid and Electric vehicles program, and received some perspective on Ford's electric vehicle efforts that we hope to share with you.

I. A Bit of Background

Electric car efforts date back to the late 1800s and early 1900s.  By 1897 there was a fleet of electric taxis operating in New York City, sold by Electric Carriage and Wagon Company.

However, Ford's first modern electric car effort arguably was the Ford Comuta concept car.  Produced and sold in very limited quantities in 1967, the vehicle sported four 12-volt lead acid batteries that powered two electric drive motors.  The vehicle was speed limited to 37 miles per hour.  Its range was limited to 40 miles at an average speed of about 25 mph. 

In an interview printed in 
The New York Times, Ford President Arjay Miller was quoted as saying, "Cars like the Comuta could be available in five to 10 years."

Ford was right, but the first EV wasn't a Ford.  It was the Sebring-Vanguard Citicar.  Produced between 1974 and 1977, over 2,300 vehicles were sold propelling it to become America's sixth largest vehicle maker, behind GM, Ford, Chrysler, AMC, and Checker (Taxis).  

In 1979 (around the time GM was stepping up its own EV efforts), Commuter Vehicles purchased Florida-based Sebring-Vanguard and rebranded its vehicles the Comuta-Car and Comuta-Van, playing off the name of Ford's iconic concept.  While the company eventually folded, its results from a pure sales perspective were impressive -- 4,300 total sales between 1979 and 1982, a record that stands to this day for road-legal electric vehicle sales (though it will surely be left behind by GM and Nissan this year or next). 

Ford would not dive back into the electric fray until 1997 when it produced a low-volume electrified Ford Ranger.  Ford would go on to sell 1,500 vehicles, some with lead-acid batteries, others with nickel-metal hydride batteries.  In 2003 Ford began terminating the program and its leases.  But Ford generously offered the vehicles to some lessees at $1 USD.  Others were sold at price.  The majority, though, met a sad fate in the junk-heap.

In 2004 Ford launched the hybrid Ford Escape crossover SUV. Variants of the Escape hybrid included a Mercury Mariner hybrid in 2006 and a Mazda Tribute Hybrid (at the time Ford owned a controlling stake Mazda) in 2007.  The Ford Escape is still going strong, but Ford plans to close the Escape models after this year (and Ford is killing the Mercury brand, so no more Mercury Mariner Hybrid).  It will replace the Escape with its European CUV counterpart, the Ford Kuga.

Ford's second hybrid, the Ford Fusion hybrid sedan, launched in 2010.  Offering an industry best 41 mpg for a mid-sized sedan (Toyota's Prius is considered in the "compact car" class), the sedan also was offered with Ford's popular Sync service.  By all indications, Ford plans to keep selling this vehicle and refreshing the hybrid technology aboard.

As Marakby puts it, "When you look at what we have today we have two successful hybrid vehicles."

II. Hybrid Platform

In 2012 Ford will bring the next major update to its hybrid platform.  Likely targets will include the 2013 Ford C-Max, the 2013 Ford Fusion, 2013 Ford Focus (based on the current MK3 international model), and the 2013 Ford Kuga CUV.  Ford's currently released info indicates that two of those models will get hybrid treatment that year, with more possibly coming in the next model year.

Mr. Marakby says that the hybrid variants will be "high volume" and will still switch to lithium-ion batteries (current hybrids use NiMH).  The drive technology and battery system are expected to improve.  Ultimately these improvements boil down to better controls of when to apply electric drive and refinements to the battery itself -- a smaller package, cheaper production costs, and less weight.

Mr. Marakby comments, "We do believe that out of hybrids, plug-ins, and battery-electrics, our higher volume solution we think the market will continue to expand is hybrids -- hybrid electric vehicles."

"Today we already have the marketing plan for hybrids.  Which is really an uncompromised vehicle; you get 41 mpg on a Fusion hybrid, it's the best fuel economy you can get in that class of vehicles and everything else is the same as a regular vehicle. Customers don't have to do anything different, so that's an easy message."

Ford has indicated that its hybrid platform will share parts with its plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) and battery electric vehicle (BEV) platforms.  Thus it's likely that Ford will be contract the batteries to LG Chem Subsidiary Compact Power, Inc. (CPI) and will use Canadian parts supplier Magna for part of the drive train (Magna has already been confirmed as the maker of much of the Ford Focus Electric BEV's drivetrain, more on that later).  However, neither of these details is official yet, and the exact suppliers may change. 

For its next generation hybrids, Ford will be assembling its battery packs at the Ford’s Rawsonville Plan in Michigan, shifting production from Mexico.  Its transaxles, currently produced by a Japanese supplier will be made at Ford’s Van Dyke Transmission Plant, also in Ford's home state of Michigan.

To wrap up, expect two next-generation Ford Hybrids in 2012, using lithium-ion technology for the first time.

III. Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles

Also launching in 2012 will be Ford's first plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.  Like GM's 2011 Chevy Volt (to be produced by the end of 2010) the 2013 Ford PHEV will have a gas engine and a battery, rechargeable by plugging in. However, GM's electrified vehicle is a so-called "series" electric in which all drive power is provided by the electric drive motor(s).  The gas engine will only be used as a generator to charge the batteries or directly produce electricity for the motor.

The Ford PHEV, by contrast is a "power-split" architecture.  Drive power will be provided by both an electric motor and a gas-motor, working in coordination.

Mr. Marakby's team at Ford believes this is a far better approach than the one GM is taking.  Series hybrids suffer the same temperature issues as battery electric vehicles, while power-split designs do not.

Mr. Marakby remarks:

If you look at the battery technology and whether its a battery electric or an extended range battery electric or a series plug-in, you are relying heavily on that battery.  You're counting on that battery at all temperature conditions and all driving conditions.  

It's not just the temperature issues, but performance.  If you want maximum torque as you're getting on the highway and your battery can't provide it and you're relying the battery that's an issue.  And it get worse at colder temperatures and hotter temperatures.  

So, with a blended plug in you don't have these issues, you can run 100 degrees (Fahrenheit), you can run 120 degrees (Fahrenheit) -- any temperature you want.  If the battery can't provide it during that short duration of when you need that the engine will complement because you have a full mechanical drive.  

He adds, "We believe that the battery technology is moving fast. However, its not at the point where you're looking at any driving condition, any temperature condition that you can rely on (to) have the same equivalent experience of a gas vehicle today.  That's why we believe in the plug-in, the blended."

On the topic of why Ford is first launching battery electric vehicles before PHEVs, which it appears to believe are better for 
more customers, Mr. Marakby says there is "no real technology reason" and that the decision just boiled down to what vehicle to make into a PHEV.

On that note, Mr. Marakby let an interesting detail slip, stating, "[The PHEV is] not a Focus.  We believe that's going to be an affordable solution for those customers that want the hybrid electric vehicle but they want the extended electric drive and the higher fuel economy -- where they're able to plug it into their outlet into their garage and get better fuel economy."

It seems likely that the PHEV will be the C-Max.  This assumption is based on the expected all-electric range of 30 miles and a juicy tidbit which Mr. Marakby let slip -- that the intended 
total range was about 700 miles on a full tank and full charge.  The current Kuga has a 12.3 gallon tank, while the C-Max has a 14 gallon tank.  Given that the C-Max gets better gas mileage and still only averages about a 450 mile range in current petrol (gas) variants, it seems very likely that the less efficient Kuga with a smaller tank could meet the 700 mile target. 

To recap, Ford in 2012 will unleash its first PHEV.  The PHEV is 
not the Ford Focus and is likely based on the Ford C-Max, or perhaps the Ford Fusion.  Ford feels that its PHEV will be a more compelling offering than series/BEV plug-ins, but will still be lower volume than hybrids.

IV. Battery Electric Vehicles

And that brings us to the last piece of the puzzle -- battery electric vehicles.  

Ford's first BEV, the Ford Transit EV, will launch later this year.  Ford ditched England's Smith Electric Vehicles in favor of Detroit, Michigan-based Azure Dynamics Corp., which Ford says will better meet its needs.  Volume will be very low initially -- possibly only 1,000 vehicles according to Mr. Marakby.  He says that production will largely depend on fleet demand.  

AT&T has already signed on to buy as many as ten of the cars and a few other major partners are lined up.  The car makes sense for some businesses -- their fleet drivers engage in many stops, but only travel around 50 miles in total -- and the 2010 Transit Connect EV gets 80 miles on a full charge.  The top speed is 75 mph.

The cargo van is driven by a 28 kWh battery with cells from Johnson Controls-Saft, which takes 6-8 hours to charge on a 240 volt charging station -- pretty much mandating a charging station.  The battery has liquid cooling, but there's no liquid heating -- an electric heater will provide for that under cold conditions (which may negatively influence mileage -- as Mr. Marakby reminds, "Energy is not free”).

Pricing has still not been announced -- the gas version retails starting at $21,880 MSRP, so we know it's going to be higher than that.  The cargo van can be expected to likely fall somewhere in the $35k-$45k range.

The van sports a maximum payload of 1,000 pounds and 135 cubic feet of space (floor-to-ceiling load height is 59.1 inches and there's 47.8 inches of load width between the wheel arches).  It seats a driver and one passenger.

The vehicle will be built at Ford's plant in Kocaeli, Turkey. Final assembly and integration of the powertrain and batteries will take place at Azure Dynamics' plant in Michigan.  Ford's production is rumored to shift to the U.S. in 2012 or 2013, but Ford would not confirm these rumors.

While Ford feels that businesses will slowly warm up to the economic logic of BEV cargo vehicles, Ford's sentiments on these vehicles bearing utility for the average customer seems pessimistic at best.

"If you have long driving or drive on the highway a lot a battery electric is not for you," Mr. Marakby told us.  And then there's the temperature issue."

Nonetheless in 2011 Ford is releasing a BEV consumer vehicle, which has now been officially named as the 2012 Ford Focus Electric.  The vehicle targets a range of 100 miles on a full charge, Ford announced this week and will feature both liquid cooling 
and heating, which should help offset battery issues (the 2011 Chevy Volt, by contrast has only liquid cooling -- relying on less effective electric heating).

LG Chem Subsidiary Compact Power, Inc. (CPI), as previously mentioned, is producing the battery cells, while Canada's Magna International, Inc. is providing much of the drivetrain.

Mr. Marakby warns, though, "If you drive it very aggressively you're going to get worse numbers, if you drive it milder you'll get better numbers."

Ford isn't betting on big customer demand.  Mr. Marakby states, "Volume expectations as we've announced is still below 10,000 units on these vehicles... We're not planning 100,000 of these."

He elaborates, "The battery electrics because of some of the challenges... cold temperature, practicality, no engine, range -- we believe that's still going to be in the low volume.  That's why we're planning the low volume.  If the market takes off and there's a lot of interest, we have the technology and we can ramp up the volume."

That may be necessary, given that the Nissan LEAF -- Ford's primary competitor -- has sold out until mid-2011 with 17,000 preorders placed in the U.S. and Japan.  Nissan is bringing three factories online and plans on producing 200,000 LEAFs globally a year within a couple years -- an incredibly high volume.  Even GM is talking about building 30,000 Volts in 2012 (with 10,000 in 2010/2011) -- though the Volt is in a slightly different class given that it's an gasoline extended-range battery electric vehicle.

But Mr. Marakby says that the initial enthusiasm may wane when customers encounter the headaches that come with BEVs.  He elaborates:

You're relying significantly at the battery being at this nice temperature range when you can't guarantee that in every condition.  Sure, if you charge it at night, every day, [but] you have to alter your behavior to do that.

These vehicles aren't good for everyone.

So why is Ford bothering at all?  It seems, based on what Mr. Marakby said, the reasoning boils down to two key points.  First, Ford believes that some customers will still buy BEVs despite the problems -- Ford's diverse approach assumes that customers want a variety of different kinds of vehicles.  

Secondly, while a battery pack does not currently equal a gas tank in energy density per space and is still very expensive, Ford realizes that eventually battery tech may become affordable and reliable enough to become the best, most affordable solution for the majority of its customers.  So Ford is getting its feet wet, without diving in, in order to position itself to be on top of this market when it matures.  And the key word there, if Ford's assessment is accurate, is "when".

V. Conclusions

Ford seems to be taking a sensible approach to electrification.  For economic conservatives it scores points for being less reliant on government handouts for deploying its charging solutions (it's paying for the first 5,000 Ford Focus Electric customers' chargers out of pocket).

Likewise Ford seems to have the best hybrid strategy.  Its Escape and Fusion hybrids already have dramatically outsold GM's hybrid attempts and the Fusion even beat out the hybrid Toyota Camry in recent sales.  The 2012 update to lithium-ion batteries should bring even more promise to the platform's high volume future.

The one real disappointment/enigma is why Ford is not releasing a PHEV in 2011, when it views it as the most attractive plug-in package.  Instead it's releasing a BEV (the 2012 Ford Focus Electric) that year, which it admits is a less than able performer under many conditions.  Ford downplays that its "just a year" difference, but that decision may come back to bite it.

Still if unannounced competitive alternatives don't arrive sooner, the PHEV that will launch in 2012 (2013 model year) will offer customers a more compelling alternative to the Tesla Model S, Chevy Volt, and Nissan Leaf EV.

Ford's biggest competition will likely be the Toyota Prius PHEV which will launch in 2011 at an estimated price of $48,000 USD.

Nissan and GM are currently stealing the electric show with flashy BEVs, but one must remember that Toyota is still sales king.  And here in the states Ford is the king of electrified sales from a domestic producer -- and if our talk with Mr. Marakby on the company's upcoming products is any indication, it plans to stay that way.

"If they're going to pirate somebody, we want it to be us rather than somebody else." -- Microsoft Business Group President Jeff Raikes

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