As you probably know, Ford Motor Co. has big plans for electric vehicles (EVs) beyond its current excellent Escape and Fusion parallel hybrids. We've already got the Transit Connect Electric, a small commercial van upfitted by Azure Dynamics and will have a Focus BEV by the end of 2011 and two Focus-based C-MAX compact minivan hybrids in 2012 – one with Ford's next-generation hybrid system, the other a C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrid.
"This is a significant beginning of the 'Power of Choice,'" said Ford group vice president of global product development Derrick Kuzak last December, where two of those three – the Focus EV and C-Max Energi PHEV – were unveiled to the media. All of these will use lithium-ion batteries, and all except the Transit Connect Electric will be built on Ford's global C-platform in Ford's Dearborn, MI assembly plant on the same assembly line as conventional Focus and C-Max vehicles.
"Building in-house expertise and leveraging our global scale is critical to developing electrified vehicles that are affordable, connected and fun to drive," said global electrification director Nancy Gioia. Kuzak added that vehicle electrification in real volumes will require "affordability, accessibility and connectivity" and that sales of Ford EVs should be two to five percent of total sales by 2015 and 10-25 percent by 2020, though most of those "electric" vehicles will be hybrids.
I caught up with Focus EV marketing manager David Finnegan at the February Chicago Auto Show and asked what volumes he expected. "All we can look to right now is what we've learned from hybrids," he responded, "which at one point got up to about three percent of the industry, then dipped back down last year. I think it will grow, but play a small role initially." ( This post continues after the jump.)
What can be done to overcome electric vehicles' Achilles' heels of cost, range and recharge time? "I can't speak to cost right now," Finnegan said, "but there are answers for the other two.
"For range anxiety, what needs to happen, and what are trying to do, is make sure that the customer is connected to the vehicle, then provide as much information as possible: What's my state of charge? Can I plan a route? Where can I find a charge point? Being able to do all of those things – with our MyFord Mobile application when you're not in the car – is critical and will help with range anxiety."
Sure, I countered, but range is still very limited and the recharge time is measured in hours, not minutes.
"For charge time," he continued, "we'll have a 6.6-kW onboard charger that gets our [24 kWh pack] charge time down to just over three hours on 240 volts. The car will also take 120-volt charging, but most of the infrastructure moving forward is 240 volt, so we see that as an advantage over some other vehicles." The Nissan Leaf's 3.3-kW onboard charger, he says, will require about twice as much time long to fully replenish its 24 kWh pack. Since our interview, Nissan has reconsidered and will likely offer an upgraded onboard charger soon.
Speaking of the Leaf, its instrumentation is extremely informative. While driving, you can see the range effect of eco vs. normal mode, and from turning on or off its climate control. In addition, its nav system displays a range circle and charge point locations within it. Will Ford's EVs have those features?
"Absolutely!" Finnegan said. "All of that is required, in my opinion. You have to provide customers with information on how they're doing vs. where they need to go? Can they find a charge point? Can they adjust their driving to help them get there? They will also need that information when they're not in the vehicle, and our system will provide it."
What about fast charging? "[The Focus Electric] is not equipped for DC fast charging because we're waiting for a U.S. standard to be established. There are some fast-charge infrastructure efforts underway – a couple of stations now, and plans for more – but there are different technologies. When a standard is established, which is very important to everyone, we will make our vehicles compatible with it."
Will the Focus Electric be a 50-state car fairly soon? "Production begins late this year, and we've announced that that our pilot effort will be in 19 markets – basically the coasts and some other areas. Our plan is to start with that, then move up and expand beyond that."
Are Ford dealers enthusiastic about electric vehicles? "There's a lot of talk and interest right now, so I think dealers are enthusiastic. But – as with the public – there are questions and varying opinions. Most dealers I've talked to see this as a potential opportunity, but how it rolls out and plays in the marketplace, we'll see."
Will there be training for both sales and service people? "Absolutely. There is a lot of technology in the car, and it will be a big decision to buy one, so it's important to make sure that the customer is presented with that and understands it."
General Motors was criticized for screening or qualifying potential customers for its late-'90s EV1. They asked whether people had a place to install the charger (preferably inside a garage), and did they really understand its limited range? Nissan is doing the same, and I assume Ford and anyone else responsibly selling electric vehicles will ask those questions because they won't want people buying or leasing one, then wishing they hadn't.
"I see that as helping the customer make the right decision," Finnegan responded. "There have been research studies that say there is misinformation or lack of understanding of the different technologies and how they work, so I don't consider that screening or qualification but part of doing the right thing for your customer. I see that as part of the education process so customers understand what they're buying."
Finally, does Ford have plans to build an extended-range EV with more electric-only range as another alternative? "Maybe, but we've not made any announcements on that, so there's nothing I can say at this time. A plug-in hybrid also provides all-electric range, so we'll see."
Given all the kudos piled on Chevy's Volt plug-in hybrid, I would be surprised to learn that any major automaker is not giving these types of vehicles a serious look.
Award-winning automotive writer Gary Witzenburg has been writing about automobiles, auto people and the auto industry for 21 years. A former auto engineer, race driver and advanced technology vehicle development manager, his work has appeared in a wide variety of national magazines including The Robb Report, Playboy, Popular Mechanics, Car and Driver, Road & Track, Motor Trend, Autoweek and Automobile Quarterly and has authored eight automotive books. He is currently contributing regularly to Kelley Blue Book (www.kbb.com), AutoMedia.com, Ward's Auto World and Motor Trend's Truck Trend and is a North American Car and Truck of the Year juror.