After a slow and uncertain start, Ford Motor Co. is making a serious push into the emerging EV market. And it’s Darren Palmer who is leading the charge as the product development director for Ford Model e, the automaker’s . That’s the side of the company focusing exclusively on battery-electric vehicles.
The British-born Palmer boasts an impressive enough CV, with an MBA from Henley Management College, and an Electrical, Electronics and Technology Degree from Birmingham University, both in the UK. But more importantly, he was a founding member of Team Edison, the skunkworks group that proved to the American automaker that it was possible to create EVs that consumers actually would like.
The first critical product was the Ford Mustang Mach-E, now one of the best-selling battery-electric vehicles on the market. Palmer met with TheDetroitBureau.com last week at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in Sussex, England where he oversaw the launch of an all-new version of the electric SUV, the off-road-focused Mach-E Rally.
TheDetroitBureau: The Goodwood Festival of Speed started out as a celebration of motorsports and the internal combustion engine. Yet, here you are, showing off a new version of the all-electric Mustang Mach-E.
Palmer: It’s such a diverse set of cars coming through here, there’s something for everybody. It was all about the noise, and engines spitting fire. But, over time, you’re seeing an entire new area, Electric Avenue, showcasing battery-electric vehicles.
Palmer: Once somebody said electric cars are all gonna look the same and they’re all gonna be commodity. As things have developed, cars like the Mustang Mach-E have a point of view. They’re not, just a box on wheels. It’s got a personality, and it’s demonstrated electric can be fun, even if it’s different fun, when you experience how quickly that car reacts to you, with a 0 to 60 of 3.5 seconds.
TDB: Yeah, there are plenty of EVs here at Goodwood, even the new Rolls-Royce Spectre.
Palmer: I love how they can have these different personalities and they’re going to be relevant in different ways. The Mustang Mach-E shows that performance can be superior to most gas cars. You can’t deny the performance aspect. And we’re seeing motorsports develop around EVs.
TDB: Still, you surprised folks by debuting the Mustang Mach-E Rally here at Goodwood. How did you come up with it.
Palmer: It’s our first all-electric off-road car. It came about because we have some off-road enthusiasts on our team. And somebody came forward and said, why not make a rallycross car? They made a model and (came up with) some specs, and they showed it to us. We thought it fit Ford’s heritage and background. The Mustang coupe is about freedom. The Mach-E is a “we” car. And this could be a car that gives you even more freedom to go places. So, we approved the project. But we didn’t have the funding. It wasn’t in the program. We just said, “Go with it.” That project took 16 months, half the time of a normal project.
TDB: This isn’t a boulder-climber.
Palmer: No, it’s not. We knew it would run well on packed gravel, the sort of thing rally cars do. It’s for high-speeds off-road, adapting to a lot of different surfaces, like a rally car. And we learned we had a lot of control over the wheels, the torque, with the electric (motors).
TDB: Could something even more off-road capable follow?
Palmer: It’s like a learning platform about what an off-road electric vehicle could do. You wouldn’t believe the terrain it’s gone over, but it does because it has skid plates on the bottom and just bounces over.
TDB: You’ve said you’re not going to release the specs until later but what can you tell me about what you’ve done to the Mach-E Rally?
Palmer: I can talk about what you can see. You can see it’s been raised a bit. How much you can work out. You can see the aero has been revised for off-road and rally. You can see the tires and wheels have been upgraded and the tires have more grip. One might deduce there’s some (unique) software that comes with it because it’s a software-defined car. And while we haven’t talked about it yet you can assume it won’t be low-performing. You might think you’d lose some on-road (comfort and handling) but you don’t.
TDB: Are you going to adopt the MagneRide (magnetic ride control active) dampers from the Mach-E GT Performance Pack?
Palmer: You can deduce things. We tested against some fairly legendary rally cars to see what made them work. And we put those elements in. In Europe, we standardized the electronic suspension because they demand the handling and performance which is so important here. We may make it more available on more (non-GT) models.
TDB: You think there’s a market for the Rally model?
Palmer: I think 50% of the people who’ll buy it wouldn’t have bought a Mach-E before.
TDB: Let’s take the next step. There are others who are getting ready to bring out electric off-roaders, like Jeep. They’ve gotten great response already with the plug-in hybrid 4xe models. You have to be looking at that.
Palmer: It’s all about the electric motor being able to be controlled so accurately and quickly. And we’re playing around with that with the (F-150) Lightning. If you’re boulder climbing and you’re in One Pedal mode where it slows the moment you lift off the throttle it’s much easier to control than a normal gas (model). There’s definitely potential…we’re exploring. The Rally is a test bed for this.
TDB: It seems like you keep learning to push into other areas.
Palmer: We’re going to keep doing that. The more you do, the more new customers you can bring in.
TDB: There’ve been a lot of reports lately about EVs beginning to pile up at dealer lots. Is this something to be concerned about? And will this impact pricing?
Palmer: We have been constrained on production of Mach-E, Lightning and E-Transit since the day we launched them. So, we decided rather quickly to put in capacity but it takes time. That volume is just about to come online. We’re also introducing a new LFP battery and making other changes that will allow us to move the price point(s) to a new area, as well as offer other derivatives in a completely new price (range) and bring it down. (The Mach-E has already) gotten more range, even as it’s gotten significantly cheaper.
TDB: So, you’re not concerned that EVs may be piling up?
Palmer: It’s a little premature to be concerned about a pile-up. We’re just loading up our dealers. Until now, every Mach-E (and Lightning) was backordered and people had to wait months for them. Now, we’ll have more, and have better deals. We’re in Moore’s Chasm in the adoption curve. There were the early adopters at the beginning. Now we’re moving into the mainstream. But that may take a little time to get going. We think this is a little valley. But customers who have them love them.
TDB: And there was a new study (by S&P Global Mobility) that said dealers are part of the problem. Are you going to have to get dealers comfortable selling EVs?
Palmer: Oh, yeah, it’s also a factor. We’ve done a lot of work training dealers. We have to get the dealers ready and comfortable with the new scale. They have to realize these are really good products and people will love them.
TDB: There’s also the issue of “charger anxiety,” which I think has replaced range anxiety as a big concern for potential customers.
Palmer: Yeah, definitely, evidence shows that. We have to keep improving. And that was the reason for the recent announcement of our tie-up with Tesla which effectively doubles the size of our (charger) network. It’s a really reliable network and charger anxiety will go away.