If you build it, they will come – or at least that’s the premise Ford Motor Co., is operating under as it works with municipalities, utilities and other partners to fund and build the infrastructures needed to power electric vehicles.
Ford is set to launch an electric version of its Focus in 2011. Despite the company’s warp-speed efforts to push its alternative fuel vehicles and supporting infrastructure ahead for what will likely be the first mass-market pure battery-electric passenger car available, the process is slow at best. Ford is not an automaker that claims an electric car is right for all consumers, but they fret that without support it might not even be right for the niche consumer.
“There is a whole lot of hype out there now that makes electrified plug in vehicle look very sexy,” said Nancy Gioia, Director, Sustainable Mobility Technologies and Hybrid Vehicle Programs, at Ford. “We need to make sure that this is something that works for utilities, that it is affordable transportation that can be sustained year after year.”
That’s not to say that Ford’s product isn’t ready go to head-to-head with its competitors. Ford is in the late stages of putting the finishing touches on the four-passenger Focus, which they expect will have a 100-mile range when it’s introduced. Basically the car – which has not yet been priced – will look like a Focus, drive like a Focus, but be green.
“One thing that is important is making the driving experience as common or similar to that of a conventional car as possible,” said Gioia. “You can drive it differently so you can get more out of your vehicle but you can also turn a key or press a button and go.”
The greatest challenge in developing the car, said Gioia, is tweaking the size, cost, and durability of the plug in battery.
But now the real work needs to be done — determine what consumers need to make the car feasible for daily use and help expedite that infrastructure.
Ford arguably has an edge on some competitors in determining what customers want from the lithium-ion battery powered Focus. It received a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, which has allowed Ford to team with a host of utility industries and other relevant partners to road test a fleet of Ford Escape Hybrid Plug-ins. Those hybrids operate on the same C-platform as the Focus.
This isn’t an academic exercise. The partnership – one of many eco partnerships underway at Ford – uses internal vehicle technology such as is available in some Ford F-150 trucks — to record and analyze customer use and interconnectivity of vehicles with the electric grid.
“I think if you build the vehicles you have to be sure you can build the infrastructure,” said Ford’s Jennifer Moore of the project. “You don’t want to have to worry about driving from Florida to Michigan, to worry that one charging station [can’t accommodate] your vehicle. That’s a critical component to building customer acceptance.”
Without some major partnerships among automakers with various utilities throughout the U.S. – and likely billions in investments -the electric vehicles by Ford and other automakers may well be non-starters.
Those at American Honda – which has pioneered hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicles most notably with its FCX Clarity – well know the frustration of having market-ready alternative fuel vehicles on hold while a solid support infrastructure is created.
“The car is fully developed and what we consider market ready,” said Honda’s Sage Marie of the FCX, noting the current infrastructure is centered on California.
Although the FCX is Honda’s eco calling card, the automaker is also developing plug-in electric vehicles — similar to Ford’s – that they feel might hit similar stumbling blocks.
Automakers are right to be concerned, said Brandon Mason, lead powertrain analyst, Automotive Institute, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Detroit.
“In order to develop a reliable and capable smartgrid, a large investment from both public (government grants, low interest loans, etc.) and private (utilities, automakers, private equity, etc.) interests will be needed,” he said. “Without this focused and combined effort, construction of a network of charging stations will be slowed.”
No one can give timeframes or costs beyond “years” and “billions.”
“The most remarkable thing about it is that it’s not remarkable,” said Gioia, talking about the soon-to-be-introduced Focus. “It handles, steers and runs just like a regular Ford Focus. It has everything that makes the vehicle enjoyable to drive.”
Except, at this point, abundant power sources.