February 2, 2009 at 6:07 pm

Ford's electric car project charges ahead

Canadian supplier's prototype fuels drive to bring battery-powered vehicle to market in '11.

Ford's electric vehicle being developed with Magna International will be based on the new global Focus platform due out in 2010. (Ford)

DEARBORN -- It was the ultimate sales pitch.

For months, Ford Motor Co. and Magna International Inc. had been talking about an electric vehicle. In September, executives at the Canadian supplier told Ford they had a surprise. They pulled up in Dearborn in a Ford Focus they had bought and converted to battery power on their dime, without Ford's knowledge.

"It was a phenomenal car," said Lisa Drake, Ford's chief engineer for hybrid programs, adding that she couldn't help smiling when she saw it. "We were highly, highly impressed."

So impressed that just four months later, amid otherwise bleak times for the auto industry, Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. stood before the world's automotive journalists in Cobo Arena to announce plans to bring a car based on that prototype to market in 2011.

Ford's electric vehicle program has been operating at warp speed since last summer. It has to, because the national debate over fuel economy, emissions and alternative propulsion has been accelerating ever since gas hit $4 a gallon.

Ford is making up for lost time. While rivals such as General Motors Corp. scored major publicity coups with futuristic vehicles like the Chevrolet Volt, Ford had limited its own investment to a handful of test vehicles that were never meant for public consumption.

When gas prices peaked last summer, tipping the auto industry into its nastiest recession in a generation, Ford started gaming out what would happen if gas kept climbing.

"We were modeling $10 a gallon. We were modeling $12 a gallon," Drake said. "We decided we need to be ready the next time this comes around."

Ford was confident gas prices would skyrocket again, and the company wanted to be sure it had alternatives to offer consumers when that happened. And so "Project M" was born: a plan to speed the development of an all-electric vehicle that would culminate in the partnership with Magna.

Ford had the technology. While GM's Volt was puttering around on a golf cart motor, Ford was racing plug-in hybrids behind the brick walls of its Dearborn test track.

In the summer of 2007, Ford had announced a partnership with Southern California Edison and the Department of Energy to develop and deploy a test fleet of plug-in hybrids. The first of these modified Ford Escape Hybrids were on the road in California by December of that year.

The shock delivered by high fuel prices also prompted Ford to accelerate the hybrid program.

Last spring, with only half of the planned fleet of 20 vehicles delivered, Greg Frenette, the head of Ford's zero emissions vehicle programs, told the plug-in hybrid team they were developing a production vehicle. It would go on sale in 2012. His engineers were thrilled.

"It gave them a sense that this was more than just an academic exercise," Frenette said. "But this is what we're supposed to be doing. Moving this into production is what this is all about."

Based on the Escape Hybrid that Ford has been selling since 2004, the plug-in connects to a standard wall socket and can go up to 40 mph before its gas engine kicks in. The test vehicles are getting 120 mpg in city driving tests and 70 mpg on the highway under optimum conditions.

The advantage of a plug-in hybrid, Frenette said, is that it combines the effectively unlimited range of a gasoline motor with the fuel savings of an electric vehicle. But having two motors also adds a lot of cost and complexity to the vehicle.

That is why Ford decided to pursue a pure battery-powered electric vehicle in tandem with the plug-in hybrid it was developing. The production vehicle being developed with Magna will be based on the new global Focus platform, due out in 2010. The electric version will have no gasoline motor, but will be limited to a range of 100 miles on a single charge -- enough, Ford says, because most motorists in America average less than 40 miles a day.

Analyst Jim Hall of 2953 Analytics LLP in Birmingham disagrees.

"There still is not a viable market for a pure electric vehicle because of the range limitations," he said, pointing to studies that show most consumers would only consider one with three times the range of Ford's. "It's psychological. They're going to have to re-educate consumers."

But Hall said Ford's strategy makes sense, though he doesn't believe it was the prospect of high gas prices that worried Ford. He believes it was the prospect of stricter fuel economy requirements from the federal government and even more aggressive clean air rules from California.

"Building electric vehicles gets the emissions monster off their backs, and it also helps their fleet fuel economy average in a big way," Hall said.

The new regulations being proposed by California, which President Barack Obama has signaled he will support, would require automakers' fleets to meet stringent limits on emissions. Hall said every zero-emission electric vehicle Ford sells would counterbalance a lot of dirtier cars and trucks.

Project M also is a boon for Magna, said Ted Robertson, the company's technology chief.

"Magna wants to be a leader and in the forefront of any new technology being developed," he said, noting that his company will be able to produce most of the components for Ford's electric powertrain in-house. Magna could also build the entire vehicle themselves, if Ford allowed it.

"There are very few suppliers who can do a whole vehicle," Robertson said, "and Magna is one of those. It was a great marriage."

You can reach Bryce Hoffman at (313) 222-2443 or bhoffman@detnews.com">bhoffman@detnews.com.

Ford puts the electric car onto the winter-stricken streets of Detroit ... (Ford)
The production vehicle will be battery-powered, doing away with gasoline ... (Ford)