SAN FRANCISCO -- Driving the all-electric Ford Focus coming in 2011 is like... like...
To be honest, it's like a quieter version of the regular gas-burning Ford Focus. It features about the same acceleration – Ford, in fact, installed a governor to tone down the acceleration. The car also seats four adults comfortably.
Pedestrians don't stare like they do when you drive a Tesla Roadster. If it weren't for the large stickers announcing that the Focus runs on electricity, most people would probably assume you just picked it up at a Hertz counter.
That is the effect, though, Ford wants. Unlike Tesla or Fisker Automotive, Ford wants to target its hybrids, plug-ins and electric vehicles to the mass market. In turn, that means cutting back on the flashier aspects of electric cars, like the remarkable torque of electric motors, to keep the price down and the driving range of the battery as long as possible. It's similar to Nissan's strategy with the Leaf.
The electric strategy has already begun. Ford added a Milan hybrid to its lineup this year. Next year, it will bring an all-electric version of the Transit Connect delivery vehicle to the U.S. The battery-powered Focus will follow in 2011 – it will initially be targeted to fleet car owners but consumers could follow soon after. A plug-in version of the Milan will start in 2012.
Approximately 10 percent to 25 percent of the cars sold in North America will be hybrids and electric cars by 2020, said Nancy Gioia, director of Ford global electrification.
"Hybrids will probably dominate," she said, in part because of the high cost of batteries. All-electrics, typically the most expensive of the three electric options, might do best in crowded urban areas where zero carbon dioxide plans are being put in place
So what is Ford doing to keep the price down? The company has retooled its factories so that gas cars, hybrids, plug-in hybrids and all-electrics can be made on the same production lines. Ford will build cars around two basic platforms, or architectures.
The cars will vary substantially. Plug-in hybrids, for instance, need lithium-ion battery packs with a greater emphasis on power than energy storage, while full-electric cars need batteries with greater storage capabilities. Thus, these two lines of cars will have different batteries – the all-electric won't just have a bigger version of the same thing. The extra pounds added by battery packs also mean tweaking designs to distribute weight. Still, enough basic communality will exist to help Ford achieve better economies of scale.
Although consumers seem excited about the prospect of electric cars, they are also incredibly price sensitive. Hybrids now make up about 3 percent of the market, but the growth hasn't been steady. Instead, demand has fluctuated with the price of gas, the availability of stickers that let hybrid owners drive in commuter lanes and one-time spiffs like Cash for Clunkers. Consumers additionally often don't think about cost of ownership or lifetime costs, just the sticker price.
Ford is also consulting with trade groups, government officials and others to try to ensure that the grid and charging infrastructure will be ready.
"Plug-ins add the equivalent of a house onto the line when charging and that's a lot," Gioia said. "We need to understand the building codes, the state of the transformers."
Standardization is already tricky. In a recent trip to China, Gioia said she visited offices in the five largest cities in the country. Each has an electric car strategy and each city is following its own standards. Getting final agreement on standards in China, though, could be somewhat easy in the end: The country has five utilities and a strong central government.
"We don't want a Ford proprietary system. We want an open system," she said.
In the U.S., each state has its own utility commission and nearly 3,000 utilities are doing business here.
Meanwhile, efficiency improvements continue on its gas cars. EcoBoost, a gasoline turbo engine that increases mileage by around 20 percent, will be in around 90 percent of Ford cars by 2011. The company is also improving aerodynamics by 5 percent.
Between 2012 and 2020, Ford has set a goal of reducing the weight of cars by 250 to 750 pounds, installing six-speed transmissions in 100 percent of its cars, replacing conventional power steering with electric power steering in 100 percent of its cars, and improving aerodynamics another 5 percent.
"Internal combustion engines will still be here but we will have more electric cars," she said.