For many moons now, Ford has been slipping farther and farther behind in the electric vehicle game. Yes, Ford has a stable of clean cars, including the Ford Focus Electric with its 72 miles of range on a 23kWh battery and the Energi (aka Ford’s plug-in hybrid/PHEV) lineup with the uniquely named C-Max Energi and Ford Fusion Energi models… but has had nothing truly earth shattering up till now. PHEVs and current “range limited” EVs are widely known to be gap cars that are good enough for now but don’t define a new long-term model in their current state.
Diving into Electrification
A recent announcement from the pony car manufacturer may just turn the tables on its so-so history with electric cars, as the automaker declared a $4.5 billion (yes, with a B) investment into electrification. The program aims to electrify existing models, adding 13 new plug-in vehicles to the Ford stable by the end of the decade, bringing electrified versions of a full 40% of all Ford vehicles. Looking at this in light of its current offerings and it’s easy to see that Ford will likely be adding powertrain options to existing vehicles or new vehicles moving forward vs offering up new, fully electric vehicles.
Indeed, Ford is also letting us peek behind the curtain (almost) of the upcoming 2016 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, with a new teaser video and photos of what looks to be a new plug-in hybrid SUV offering. We have posted the official video below as well as a promo photo of the covered vehicle that is obviously a new full-size SUV that plugs in. With the plug only being a standard J1772 port, it only makes sense for this to be a PHEV, as an all-electric SUV of this size would require quite a large battery to go any reasonable distance, which, in today’s market, would require a DC fast charging option. I would love to see an all-electric SUV from Ford, as 2016 is sure to be the year of the electric SUV as the Tesla Model X ramps up to full production and starts arriving on streets en masse.
From what we can see in the teaser video below, this new blue beast carries a wide stance that is accentuated by bold headlights that hang on to the outside corners of the car, pulling the visuals wider still. It looks promising, as the US SUV market is in desperate need of some efficiency improvements, though I’m not going to lock in my final position until I see some numbers. Specifically, we need as many electric-only miles as possible from a PHEV to maximize the all-electric mileage and keep the actual impact of the vehicle high. Also on my wish list for Christmas from Ford, I would love to see a diversion from the typical integrated gas/electric drivetrain used in most PHEVs to more of a range-extended electric vehicle approach like the Chevy Volt. This approach builds all the fundamentals of an EV — including an all-electric powertrain supported by a gas-powered generator in the back, which exists only to charge the battery.
Too Little Too Late?
A key marketing focus of the plan announces a much-needed bump in range for the Ford Focus Electric to over 100 miles per charge and added DC fast charging capability. The current Focus Electric has received solid reviews as a car but has been lacking both range and fast-charging capabilities, which have put it at the back of the pack when compared to the competition, so this is encouraging. Having said that, the upgrades won’t even move into production until late 2016 for a 2017 model year vehicle, giving the already available 2016 Leaf a full year head start into this niche EV market.
On top of the 1 year delay vs the current competition, the 2017 upgrade puts Ford at a significant disadvantage vs key competitor GM, with the expected announcement of the production version of the much-anticipated 2017 Chevy Bolt (again, with a B) in early 2016. Aside from the Bolt generating way more confusion if it doesn’t get a new name (“oh, the new Volt?” No… Bolt… with a B!), it is expected to enter the market in 2017 with a range almost double that of the new Focus Electric. That’s a HUGE advantage in a market that is really only being held back by the range of the cars. As we say here all the time, electric cars have a slew of benefits that are user-preferred and just need to get over the early battery R&D hump before they explode into mainstream adoption. Additionally, the production version of the Tesla Model 3 will be rolling into town any day now with a much stronger EV brand and years of anticipation behind it.
The market will be the official judge, jury, and executioner for the Focus Electric, but it really feels to me like the new plans are about 2 years off of a pace that would keep them competitive with peers in an EV market that is stomping on the accelerator towards mass adoption.
Electrify the Line!
To support the new electrified lineup, Ford has partnered with the University of Michigan on a new battery R&D lab which was brought into existence specifically to develop the next generation of advanced battery tech for EVs. Beyond the shores of the Americas, Ford is also ramping up its overseas research and engineering teams in Europe and Asia, presumably to take advantage of local battery expertise in Europe and to tap the battery innovation in Asia, where much of the world’s batteries are produced today.
This move is supported by internal upgrades to the Ford Electrified Powertrain Engineering program, which will see an infusion of 120 new staff who will be tasked with stepping up the pace on electrifying the fleet. Ford is also christening the new Ford Engineering Laboratory to support the expanded team and serve as the nerve center for Ford electrification efforts across the globe, pulling all ideas into the mothership for assimilation.
Further supporting the next gen approach, Director of Ford Electrification Programs Kevin Layden shares, “Batteries are the life force of any EV, and we have been committed to growing our leadership in battery research and development for more than 15 years. Battery technology has evolved rapidly since we launched our first volume electrified product, the Ford Escape Hybrid, in 2004, and we look forward to developing even better vehicle battery technology for our customers.” I am hopeful that the “leadership in battery R&D” is referencing EV batteries and not the 12v under the hood, but really need to see some production cars put on offer before making a determination. Either way, it is evident that Ford is leaning into EVs and, if nothing else, continuing its steady march towards offering plug-in versions of existing vehicles.