Luke Ottaway's picture

Does Ford’s plan for electric vehicles lack vision?

Recent comments from an exec at Ford indicated the company isn’t going to get behind battery electrics just yet, but instead will continue to focus its efforts on plug-in hybrids. Is this a clever strategy, or is their attitude toward pure electrics a self-fulfilling prophecy?

It is clear from a glance at the Ford product lineup that the company has put a great deal of effort into powertrain electrification. The Fusion Energi, C-Max Energi, and Focus EV are all excellent vehicles; the plug-in versions of the Fusion and C-Max are selling relatively well while Focus EV sales have tallied in the low hundreds every month for the past year. The Fusion Energi and C-Max Energi start at $34,700 and $32,920 respectively, high but not unreasonable sticker prices for two highly regarded vehicles with no range limitations. The C-Max Energi is currently cheaper than the Chevrolet Volt barring a price drop with the Volt's upcoming redesign.

In an interview with This Is Money, the chairman and managing director of Ford in Britain, Mark Ovenden, had this to say about electric vehicles: “Electric cars just haven’t taken off...There’s no point in us getting behind it and losing a fortune. It’s got to be commercially viable.”

This comment reflects Ford’s half-hearted Focus EV effort and makes it seem as though they will avoid pure battery electrics, at least until the market conditions improve. This perspective might make business sense, as Ford surely loses money on the Focus EV just as Fiat-Chrysler loses money with every sale of its 500e compliance car. However, it could be argued that Ford is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy; they haven’t devoted any significant engineering resources to a true battery electric with the intention of selling it in large numbers, so it can hardly be expected to succeed.

One can also make the argument that this is fundamentally not the right attitude to have toward battery electrics. A big difference between Tesla, which has had a great deal of success producing nothing but electric vehicles, and the Fiat-Chryslers of the world is that Tesla lost money (and still is losing money by some metrics) on electric vehicles but set out to solve this problem by making more electric vehicles. To most other automakers, losing money on battery electrics tells them they should limit the number of vehicles they sell to minimize losses. I’m no business man, but to me this doesn’t exactly sound like taking the long view.

But this also doesn’t mean Ford is not doing its part to improve the prospects of electric vehicles. Though they are reluctant to commit to pure electrics, Ford appears truly committed to driving down the price of plug-in hybrids that can operate in electric-only mode for 20-30 miles, which is sufficient to cover most people’s daily commute. On top of that, public charging networks and in particular DC fast charging effectively increase this range.

Until battery technology improves and consumers demonstrate they are willing to buy pure battery electric vehicles in large volumes, Ford is happy to focus on their plug-in hybrid lineup. Though their level of complexity is high thanks to the dual-powertrain system, these extended range electric vehicles are more practical than pure battery electrics and are a great transitional technology to bridge the gap between conventional vehicles and pure electrics.

On the whole, I think Ford is to be commended for their electrification efforts. The commitment level is certainly higher than some other major automakers, and Ford has chosen to put their eggs in the plug-in hybrid basket rather than the pure battery electric basket for the time being. Time will tell if this is a wise strategy. I would like to see Ford develop a purpose-built pure battery electric, but any sale of an electrified vehicle is a victory for carbon dioxide emissions reduction. The greatest impact Ford could have on emissions would be a plug-in version of the best-selling F150, but that’s a story for another day.

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The liquid cooling is very good on my 2013 Focus Electric. Even in the Phoenix heat I have not lost any capacity while many other electrics have. Nice job FORD. Next they need to make the climate control more effiicent like the heat pump used on the 2013 LEAF.