The Ford Motor Company is not going to chase GM and do a plug-in series hybrid like the Volt. In fact, the Blue Oval thinks that approach is a mistake. Instead, Ford is taking a three-pronged attack to developing hybrid and electric vehicles, with one technology building upon the other.
And by the way, Ford, like most other automakers, is putting fuel cell technology on the back burner. Until a hydrogen infrastructure for automobiles is put in place, there isn't much sense in developing cars that run on hydrogen, especially when that hydrogen infrastructure is many years and many billions of dollars away.
Ford's approach is to develop strong hybrids, which it already has in the market (Fusion, Milan, Escape, Mariner), followed by plug-in hybrids, followed by electric vehicles. In two years time it will have each of those kinds of vehicles in its showrooms.
John McElroy is host of the TV program "Autoline Detroit" and daily web video "Autoline Daily". Every week he brings his unique insights as an auto industry insider to Autoblog readers.
When it comes to plug-ins Ford prefers to go with a parallel hybrid, where the engine is still mechanically connected to the wheels. This differs from a series hybrid, like the Chevy Volt, where the engine is only used to recharge the batteries and is not connected to the wheels.
Ford prefers a parallel hybrid because it claims such a system is smaller, cheaper and better. I just had the chance to drive Ford's plug-in Escape that uses a parallel system, and it's interesting to see how it differs from the Volt. It offers up to a 30-mile range in pure EV mode and it will stay in that all-electric mode up to 40 miles an hour. At any speed over 40 mph the engine comes on, but that's typically at cruising speeds where the engine is most efficient.
In most strong hybrids you have to go very easy on the accelerator pedal to keep it in EV mode. But with the plug-in Escape, you can accelerate at a relatively brisk rate without getting the engine to kick in. Of course, if you really put your foot into it the engine will come on.
With the Volt you get up to a 40-mile range in pure EV mode, and you can drive it up to its top speed or accelerate as hard as you want without getting the engine to come on. But once you hit that 40-mile mark, or if the batteries hit 50% discharge, the engine comes on and stays on until you stop, plug-in and recharge.
To stay in EV mode for 40 miles Ford says that a series hybrid system like the Volt needs a bigger battery pack. That means more mass and packaging space and since they use lithium-ion batteries, significantly more cost. A parallel hybrid, since it relies on the engine to do the heaviest work, can get by with a smaller battery pack, hence at lower cost.
I also had the chance to drive Ford's electric Focus and came away quite impressed. Though it still needs a few minor calibration tweaks, this car already performs admirably even though it won't be in production for another two years. It accelerates briskly from a standstill, yet still has enough get-up-and-go at 50 mph to accelerate and pass other cars. In fact, I'd say it's almost ready to go in the showrooms right now except for one thing: the cost.
To get a 100-mile range in an EV, which is what most automakers seem to be shooting for, requires a big battery pack. In the case of the Focus EV the cost of the li-on batteries is close to $30,000 at today's prices.
There are quite a few lithium-ion battery companies gearing up for production and the volume is going to ramp up fairly quickly. But unless or until the price of these batteries comes down significantly it's hard to see how these cars will be anything but a very small niche in the marketplace, whether they're series or parallel or pure EV.
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