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Ford charges electric, hybrid strategy

Ford's newly named director of global electrification forecasts rapid growth for hybrids and markets for battery-electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles developing in the years ahead.

BOSTON--Ford Motor expects to manufacture as many as 2 million all-electric and gas-electric vehicles in the next 10 years, betting that rising oil prices and consumer interest will sustain a long-term transition to new technologies.

The company has set a goal of making 10 percent to 25 percent of its fleet "electrified" by 2020, which represents somewhere between 800,000 and 2 million cars, said Nancy Gioia at a media event here on Wednesday. Ford announced on Wednesday that Gioia will hold a newly created position of director of global electrification, which covers hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and battery-electric vehicles.

Plug-in electric vehicles promise to offer a much lower cost-per-mile than gasoline cars and deliver substantial environmental benefits. But in the near term, hybrids will likely represent the largest volume in the mix of technologies, said Gioia at the event.

"We've finally demonstrated the technology, the life, the durability, the safety (of hybrids)--all of that has reached a comfort zone to make it viable. Now it's going to be affordability that will drive mass market adoption," she said.

A demo of a Ford Focus, done with Magna, that runs on batteries alone. Ford plans to introduce the car in 2011. Martin LaMonica/CNET

Ford is now working on an updated generation of its hybrid power train which will be used on its plug-in hybrid vehicles, which will come to market in 2012. Equipped with a larger battery than a traditional hybrid, the company projects its plug-in hybrid cars will allow drivers to go about 30 miles in electric mode, with the gasoline engine kicking in as needed for acceleration during those initial miles.

Before then, though, Ford plans to release an all-electric Focus compact sedan in 2011. An all-electric Transit Connect utility van is scheduled for release in 2011.

The electric Focus will be built in Michigan on the same manufacturing lines that make the gasoline version of the car. The car, which is expected to have a higher upfront cost than a gas Focus because of the large battery, which will offer 23 kilowatt-hours of storage, or about 100 miles of driving range.

In addition to electrification, Ford is implementing a number of other efficiency enhancements to gasoline engines, with an eye toward high volume. Earlier this year, Ford started introducing its EcoBoost direct-injection turbo technology which allows 4-cylinder cars to have the same power as 6-cylinder models.

Ford is also developing "start-stop" technology where a vehicle's engine turns off after being immobile for a few seconds, such as a stop light. This technology will come to manual transmission Fords in Europe next year and the company expects to bring it to automatic transmissions as well, Gioia said.

Opening a niche for pure electrics
For all the excitement around the potential for electric vehicles at Ford and other automakers, there is skepticism over how much all-electric cars will appeal to consumers, at least in the next decade.

Nancy Gioia, director of Ford global electrification Ford Motor

For consumers, there's the ongoing concern over "range anxiety" where a driver can't find a spot to recharge during a drive. Also, there aren't many charging spots in public places, complicating the picture for city dwellers, for example.

Still, Ford expects growth from plug-in hybrids and battery-electric vehicles. There are many consumers and fleet vehicle drivers who have relatively short driving cycles on repeatable paths, making them good candidates for either type. Demand for battery-electrics may be driven by cities which have created incentives for low-carbon transportation technologies or emissions-free zones, Gioia added.

"So whether it's incentivized or just driving behavior, we do see growth in battery electrics around the world. I'm not sure North America will be the driver," she said. "We may have the early-adopter lead, but if major infrastructure is not put in place, it will be hard to promote that."

During the media day, IHS Global Insight analyst John Wolkonowicz projected that pure electric vehicles and range-extended electric vehicles, like the Chevy Volt, will represent just over 1 percent of the total market by 2014. All electrics will outsell range-extended vehicles, he said.

Is the grid ready?
As any auto industry executive will tell you, the transition to plug-in electric vehicles requires coordination with utilities.

If large volumes of vehicles plugged into the grid at the same time, more expensive and polluting power plants may need to be constructed to meet the demand. To avoid that, automakers and smart-grid software companies are developing smart-charging technology that will allow vehicle charging at off-peak times, typically the overnight hours.

National Grid is one of several utilities working with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and the Department of Energy on a study to measure the effects of plug-in electric vehicles on the grid. At this point, National Grid is mainly gathering data on electricity usage and charge patterns, said Steven Tobias, principal analyst for technology and innovation at National Grid on Wednesday.

Farther out, utilities could rely on plugged-in vehicles for short-term storage to stabilize the grid. But National Grid's main concern is making sure that plug-in electric vehicles work well with smart-grid home energy management systems, said Stan Blazewicz, the global head of technology at the utility.

Adding a few thousand plug-in electric vehicles across National Grid's Massachusetts and New York regions wouldn't be much of a concern in terms of demand, Blazewicz said. But utilities and automakers expect that "clusters" of consumers in neighborhoods will buy them. "When you get 100 vehicles all in the same area, that's when it becomes a challenge for us," he said.

There is technology that will allow utilities to control the rate of charging without creating an inconvenience for the consumer, he added. "At some point, we need the smart grid to manage EVs. We don't want to be the roadblock."

For its part, Ford is developing an in-car charge-management program and wireless system to communicate directly with smart meters, Gioia said.

When it comes to battery-electric or range-extended vehicles, one of the biggest barriers to consumers in the near term will be the higher upfront price, said Wolkonowicz. Government policies will "get us sliding down the technology curve where more and more people will see this as something they want to do," he said.

Utility National Grid is testing one Ford Escape which was converted to be a plug-in hybrid to see how electric vehicles will impact the grid. Martin LaMonica/CNET