Ford Revamps Fleet for the Plug-In Revolution

Ford hopes to electrify consumers as they look to plug-ins over the pump.

It’s hard to compete with Chevrolet and those sexy new ads for the $32,780 Volt voiced by George Clooney. But Ford argues the game plan isn’t really about competition, but rather cooperation when it comes to its soon-to-be released Focus and other electric vehicles. At least this is the message being delivered by John Viera, Director of Sustainable Business Strategies for Ford as he hits events throughout the country to sell the plug-in revolution to drivers facing nearly $4 per gallon at the pumps.

“Collaboration is key and we are partnering with Microsoft, interfacing with utility companies and working together to educate consumers about developing batteries and other technology to bring down the costs,” Viera shared at the recent San Francisco Green Festival. “No one has one piece of magic above anyone else.”

While there is no piece of magic in terms of making the technology, there are edges in making the technology available to motorists to wean them off of fuel. Infrastructure is the operative term in cultivating a plug-in culture.  And it’s evident that Israel has taken the helm with its start-up Better Place, a maker of electric cars that will launch a highway charging enterprise later this year, allowing its drivers to travel anywhere in Israel with a battery range of 100 miles. As with refueling for gas, if they set off from Tel Aviv to the Red Sea they can pull into a Better Place station and swap a low battery for a fully charged one in five minutes. How will motorists know where to find  parking lots with blue-topped charging posts? Try the GPS screen on their dashboards.

While looking to U.S. municipalities to expedite the same kind of access to motorists, Ford is revamping a variety of vehicles in its fleet, preparing to roll out the plug-in Focus in 2012 in the U.S  and Europe, debuting in regions it refers to as “smile states” like Seattle and California where conscious consumers have been quick to adopt the hybrid concept. The current pricing is from about $17,000 to $24,000, considerably less than the Volt plug-in hybrid, a popular choice that reportedly goes 30 days and 1,000 miles between fill ups.

Abroad, Ford’s vehicles now cater to current trends such as ethanol a top choice in Brazil, and diesel, a popular option in Europe. In the meantime, Ford has redesigned its Michigan plant to ideally become a state of the art lab for producing battery operated vehicles of all kinds.

“We want to offer a choice and show there are different ways to have electric,” says Viera, pointing out that Ford’s strategy for keeping costs down is to stick new bodies or “top hats” on an existing platform allowing any one of their vehicles to become electric, from commercial trucks to the Taurus with a quick assembly changeover. “We’re all about high end affordable transportation and the next generation of transit comes off the same platform as the Focus.”

Beyond the bodies, Viera admits that sustainable parts and the instrumentation are also key in easing consumer anxieties over range and resources, including recycled, eco-friendly upholstery and corn-based head rests, along with software instruments on the dashboard for customer feedback, such as Butterflies or various phone apps alerting drivers to how much power remains on their batteries. He says mass marketing must answer the needs of the mainstream with partnering services such as the Best Buy Geek Squad, coming out to install charging equipment in the garages of electric car customers.

“Eventually, all auto companies will have charging stations and Mapquest and other sites will tell you where to go to find them,” says Viera, pointing out the biggest challenges ahead are reducing charge times (now three to four hours for 340 volts), cutting down costs of cars and lithium batteries, and how to properly dismantle and dispose of batteries. There’s even the matter of controlling electro pollution smog by shielding the radiation of vehicles, something Ford tests regularly to meet high standards in regions like the Middle East.

After all, the Middle East is the place to beat in terms of advances. As Shai Agassi, founder of Better Place told Time, the electric car will be the top selling car in the world in less than a decade offering “the biggest financial opportunity the world has ever seen presenting a $10 trillion shift in the industry. “It’s the Internet, and add another zero,” Agassi calculates.

He predicts ordinary Israelis will be driving the Turkish-made Renault Fluence Z.E. sedan as early as November depending on the price of the cars and the costs of charging, the same factors Ford must consider in making electric palpable to consumers tired of paying $70 to fill up. After the car purchase, innovators are now looking to the cell phone rate plan as a model for battery subscriptions, as in Denmark, where the fee is equivalent to $300 a month for mileage of 6,200 miles. A one-time fee of $2,000 also is charged.

Of course this kind of fee is minimal when you consider that in Israel and Denmark, gas is an astronomical $9 a gallon. When the U.S. sees those kinds of prices at the pumps (as Donald Trump promises we will), that financial opportunity Aggasi described will really hit home, and companies like Ford will be glad they began revamping now to meet the anticipated demand.

Images: Ford; Better Place;

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.