Is Ford going to surprise us with a long-range electric vehicle?
When it comes to sincerity in the pursuit of mass-market electric cars, three automakers stand out above the rest: Tesla, Nissan, and BMW. Those three companies have all placed big, risky bets on the future of electric vehicles, and all are succeeding to varying degrees so far.
One could argue that GM is in that top tier as well, as the Volt represents a bold investment that helped kick-start the current age of electric cars. One could also make a reasonable case against GM for several reasons, but that is a story for another day.
Underrated in Dearborn
But what about Ford? Some electric vehicle advocates like to grumble about the Blue Oval, as the automaker has done little to sell its Focus Electric beyond compliance car volumes and even is quick to point out the car’s limitations. The Fusion Energi and C-Max Energi are frequently dismissed because they offer fewer than 20 miles of electric range, less than half that of the Volt.
Those (albeit valid) criticisms miss the larger picture, however: this year, Ford has sold more plug-in electric vehicles in the United States than any automaker except Nissan. The Fusion Energi has sold 9,323 units through September in 2014, while the C-Max Energi has totaled 6,486 sales. And though it may be difficult to find one at your local Ford dealerships, the Focus Electric has sold 1,534 units this year. It also just got a $6,000 price cut, which would give sales a boost if Ford wanted to sell more of the electric hatch.
Admittedly, making plug-in hybrids that cannot even go 20 miles on electricity is not doing much to shift the industry paradigm or curb carbon emissions. But what if Ford is working on a long-range electric vehicle, one that would move us closer to an electric future, and simply isn’t telling anyone yet?
Reading between the lines
New Ford CEO Mark Fields has been in the news for seemingly innocuous comments that drew a lot of attention. In a conversation last week with Wall Street analysts, Fields confirmed that Ford has done a thorough tear-down analysis of the Tesla Model S. He also claimed that Ford has the talent and engineering acumen to build a Model S-like electric vehicle. Most importantly, Fields pointed out that a Tesla competitor would be “very consistent with our product strategy.”
The first statement does not mean much, as all major automakers purchase or simply exchange vehicles with their competitors for benchmarking and the like. The second statement is little more than a vote of confidence in his engineers and product development team – most executives would respond similarly to that kind of question, although maybe not in reference to an all-electric vehicle with the range and performance characteristics of Model S.
It is the assertion that a Tesla-like electric vehicle would be closely aligned with Ford’s philosophy that has piqued our curiosity the most. Does it mean an expensive but no-compromises electric vehicle, dominant in a niche market, would be consistent with Ford’s product strategy? Or simply that a long-range electric vehicle, possibly to succeed the Focus Electric, would be a logical next step for Ford?
Behind the curtain
Of course, it is difficult to know what Ford is working on behind the scenes. If several sources are to be believed, one of those projects is an all-new dedicated hybrid and plug-in hybrid. What we do know is that the automaker is more committed to electric vehicles than many people realize, and it is only a matter of time before a next-generation battery arrives that could provide a huge technological leap over the current pack used in the Focus Electric.
Additional insight from Green Car Reports has interested us a great deal, and comes closer to confirming what we have been suspecting. An engineer involved in the technical committee developing the CCS fast charging standard told Green Car Reports that Ford alone had been insisting on a future standard of 150 kW, a significant upgrade even over the industry-leading Tesla Superchargers that currently provide 120 kW to 135 kW.
Those Superchargers can replenish the massive 60- and 85-kWh batteries of Model S to the tune of 170 miles of range in a mere 30 minutes, according to Tesla’s numbers. The trick with DC fast charging, however, is that a smaller battery cannot take advantage of high charge rates. That’s the reason CHAdeMO stations typically supply the Nissan LEAF with 50 kW – expensive charging stations with higher power rates don’t make sense, as the 24-kWh battery would fill so quickly the charger would have to be de-rated to a lower power level within a few minutes to protect the battery.
So why would Ford be pushing for an even higher charging rate than a Tesla Supercharger? If this is indeed true, the only logical explanation is that Ford has plans for an electric vehicle with a significantly larger battery than the 23-kWh unit in the current Focus Electric.
DC fast charging is considered the complementary technology necessary to enable road trips in electric vehicles, but it makes the most sense if the vehicles using it can achieve 200 miles of range on a charge or more.
Remember the race?
Back when GM revealed it was developing a 200-mile battery electric vehicle, company VP Doug Parks stated that most of the automakers are in a high-stakes race to produce an affordable electric vehicle capable of 200 miles on a charge. We would be remiss to forget that Ford has a formidable electrified powertrain engineering department, and surely would not ignore the potential importance of such a vehicle.
Interestingly, Ford’s director of electrical and electronics systems research and innovation Jim Buczkowski recently told Ward’s Auto about the challenge faced by automakers in selling electric vehicles:
“We have to have C- and D-segment vehicles [or compact and midsize cars] that are very affordable for customers to really get EVs to take off.”
This statement does not necessarily mean that Ford is planning an affordable C- or D-segment electric car capable of 200 miles on a charge. Taken within the broader context, however, we believe that Ford is going to be releasing a long-range electric vehicle perhaps by 2018.
Could this car be a Lincoln? Some think GM would be making a mistake if it rolls out its much-hyped 200-mile electric car in a Chevrolet Sonic package, but Ford may not take the same route. A Lincoln would provide an appealing platform and price point for an entry-level luxury electric vehicle with a large battery. Slotted somewhere between the Tesla Model 3 and Model S, we think an electric Lincoln could carve out a nice niche for itself.
Though there might not be enough room in the Focus Electric, even with vastly improved battery technology, to pack the necessary capacity to achieve the 200-mile milestone, its successor cannot be counted out as a possibility either.
We may just have to wait for Ford to lay its cards on the table, and we could be waiting a while.