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Will EVs Dominate Ford Line-Up ?

Can EVs and Plug-Ins Deliver the Green?

by on Mar.06, 2009

Ford will make the Transit Connect its first Battery-Electric Vehicle.

Ford will make the Transit Connect its first Battery-Electric Vehicle.

Once you ignore any mention of bankruptcy, the year’s big buzzword, in automotive circles, is “electrification.” According to industry experts, virtually every new vehicle will use at least some form of battery power in its drivetrain by the end of the next decade, even if its just a basic Stop/Start system, or the sort of battery regeneration showing up on numerous European models, such as the new Audi A5 Cabriolet.

Yet, according to some, plug-ins and pure Battery-Electric Vehicles, or BEVs, could make up a significant portion of the future fleet. And one of those someones is Ford CEO Alan Mulally, at least if you hear what the former Boeing executive had to say during the recent Wall Street Journal ECO:nomics conference in Santa Barbara, California.

“In ten years, twelve years, you are going to see a major portion of our portfolio move to electric vehicles,” said Mulally. He noted that gasoline power isn’t going away, stressing his belief that, in the coming years, “we’ll have a significant improvement in the fuel efficiency in the internal combustion engine.” But while Mulally forecast, “You’ll see more hybrids…you will really see a lot more electric vehicles.”

Ford, you may recall, was the first American automaker to come up with a true hybrid-electric vehicle and, indeed, its Escape Hybrid was the world’s first HEV truck. This year, the automaker is doubling its line-up of gasoline-electric models, and the new Fusion Hybrid has the – well-publicized – advantage of delivering a full 4 mpg more than the similarly-sized Toyota Camry Hybrid.

Stung by the media success that is the Chevrolet Volt, Ford has been moving aggressively to make up lost ground — especially on the green PR front – and promises to have an assortment of both plug-in hybrids and BEVs ready for market by the beginning of the coming decade. The carmaker has been vague with details, though it confirmed, during a Chicago Auto Show press conference, last month, that the first battery car will actually be a battery-powered truck, a version of its new TransitConnect commercial van, which will debut in 2010. A plug-in is expected the following year.

The Chevrolet Volt, shown here with a mock-up of its lithium-ion battery pack.

The Chevrolet Volt, shown here with a mock-up of its lithium-ion battery pack.

The race to market such technology is rapidly heating up, especially as it appears some real breakthroughs are occurring in the battery R&D labs. Early forms of Lithium-Ion, or LIon, technology had some major problems. Though LIon batteries could hold about twice as much power as older Nickel-Metal Hydride technology, the newer technology was prone to unexpected failure and the occasional fire. Newer LIon batteries, such as the system GM is sourcing from Korea’s LG Chem, appears to be less prone to fire and failure.

At least, that’s the general consensus. But not everyone agrees. Toyota has had a number of problem with lithium, and Bob Carter, general manager of the flagship Toyota division, here in the U.S., said the company is “reluctant” to place too many bets on lithium’s future – a chemistry which most experts believe is essential to the production of commercially-viable plug-ins and battery vehicles. As a result, Toyota plans to test market its own plug-in, a lithium-powered version of Prius, but will limit the program, at least initially, to fleets.

“We’ll start with commercial customers,’ explained Carter, “then see if it’s attractive enough for consumers.”

Toyota’s not alone in raising skepticism about plug-ins, BEVs and lithium batteries. A new study, by researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, contents that these vehicles just aren’t as cost-effective as conventional hybrids – like Prius.

For one thing, contended co-author Jeremy J. Michalek, plug-ins won’t save enough gas if they can only get 40 miles per charge, as GM plans for Volt. That is, he argued, “a cost that will never be repaid in fuel savings.”

Retiring GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz – who conceived the Volt concept – countered that the Carnegie-Mellon study used “wrong assumptions” when working out its equations, especially when it came to future gasoline prices.

Who’s right remains to be seen, but GM, it is hoping that if Volt proves successful, it could use the underlying Voltec drivetrain in other models, possibly including the Cadillac Converj, which debuted at this year’s Detroit Auto Show, as well as the Opel Ampera, which was unveiled, earlier this week, at the Geneva Motor Show.

Most makers are pushing into the advanced battery world. Nissan hopes to launch a battery-electric vehicle of its own early in the new decade, and could have several running by 2020.

But right now, if Mullaly’s comments are any indication, Ford is going to bet heavily on battery power, which would prove a sharp reversal in course considering the U.S. maker’s traditional dependence on gas-guzzling pickups and other light trucks.

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2 Responses to “Will EVs Dominate Ford Line-Up ?”

  1. Stan Wellaway says:

    In big countries like the US, the preference for hybrids over pure BEVs is understandable. But it also stifles battery progress. And as stated above, 40 miles per battery charge is not sufficient to repay the capital outlay.

    But is smaller countries, and in large connurbations, where there is some logic in going for pure BEVs. Not only is the capital outlay lower (no gas engine to buy), but the weight of that gas engine is gone too – allowing battery-only distances of 75-100 miles. In those cases we are nearer to making such vehicles affordable (we are not there yet but we are starting off nearer). And if we allow the electricity suppliers to own and lease out the batteries 9which I think they would quite like to do as it allows them some control over how they balance the recharging timetables), the upfront cost of the vehicle is reduced further. Electricity itself is the cheapest part of the equation – so could be used to offset battery rental cost.

  2. Stan,
    Some VERY prescient comments, and you touch on some things happening in the EV world (a few of which I believe I’ve written about, earlier on TheDetroitBureau.com, and elsewhere).
    The move to leasing the battery is an interesting concept. Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn, for example, would sell you the vehicle for a competitive price, and make the battery a separate lease for a price roughly equivalent to what you’d expect to pay for gas, each month. As the actual cost for electricity is expected to run perhaps 1/10th of the price for gasoline, an owner would be looking at roughly the same operating costs, initially, as a petrol vehicle — but then have the potential to get tax credits and the knowledge of being ‘green,” to boot.
    Conventional wisdom suggests GM will market Volt at somewhere up to $40,000. That would likely be a disaster. But 1) I think it may come in below expectations, and 2) I would hope that if the company is creative enough to pull off the concept, that it will be equally creative in financing a purchase (ala Ghosn).
    Beyond that, your point about BEVs having market-specific demands seems very, very spot-on. Note how Nissan is creating a series of projects, including a really creative joint venture in Israel, for its upcoming battery car. There’s the Israeli program, which includes the option of fast-swapping discharged batteries for fresh ones, and other programs in smaller countries, such as Denmark.
    The good news is that the latest iteration of Lithium chemistry(ies) seems to push the range barrier closer to 200 miles/300+ km. And, as Lutz noted, here:
    http://www.thedetroitbureau.com/2009/03/time's-running-out-for-lutz/
    …with volume production, LIon prices should plunge in the next few years.
    We’ll see. There are still a lot of “ifs”.
    Paul A. Eisenstein
    Bureau Chief, TheDetroitBureau.com