Ford Takes Incremental Approach to EV Range

By · May 10, 2016

The 2016 Ford Focus Electric provides 76 miles of driving range on a single charge. The 2017 edition will boost range to about 100 miles.

The automotive brands most commonly associated with plug-in cars are Tesla, Nissan, Chevrolet and BMW. But not far behind in the pack is Ford. In fact, when you combine monthly sales of its Fusion and C-Max plug-in hybrids—with a few units of the all-electric Focus EV thrown in—Ford should be viewed as one of the leaders in the emerging electric market. Yet, Ford’s approach is decidedly incremental, as opposed to its competitors that are trying to push the limits of battery-powered driving range.

It’s not easy to grasp Ford’s direction based on recently conflicting reports. In mid-April, Kevin Layden, Ford's director of electrification programs and engineering, said the 100-mile range coming this fall in the 2017 Focus Electric—a jump from the outgoing model’s 76 miles—is quite sufficient. Layden, speaking at the SAE World Congress, said that the relatively minor increase to 100 miles would allow the company to maintain a modest cost and weight to its electric cars. “The Focus Electric at 100 miles is going to satisfy a big chunk of the population," said Layden. "It's going to be really affordable and a step up from where we are now."

Apparently, that statement didn't sit well with Ford's top management, who don't want the company to be perceived as a technology or environmental laggard—especially in the light of 200-mile electric cars soon coming from Tesla, General Motors and Nissan.

By the end of April, Mark Fields, chief executive at Ford, said, “Our approach, very simply, is we want to make sure that we're either among the leaders or in a leadership position.” He went a step further by adding, “When you look at some of the competitors and what they've announced, clearly, that's something we're developing for." Yet, he didn’t provide any specifics, most notably a timeline of when Ford might actually offer a longer range electric car. Simply producing hybrids and plug-in hybrids and a single 100-mile EV is of course a stepping stone to longer range electric cars that might eventually come one day.

Ford did say that it’s investing $4.5 billion in so-called electrified vehicles. It’s important to note that the term “electrified” could mean one of three things: (1) a conventional gas-based no-plug hybrid, (2) a plug-in hybrid with some amount of all-electric range, even if minor; or (3) a full battery-electric vehicle. (You could throw in a fuel-cell electric vehicle to that definition as well.)

So, when executives behind the Blue Oval indicate that 13 electric cars and hybrids will be added to Ford’s by 2020, you can expect most of them to be hybrids or plug-in hybrids—rather than pure electric vehicles. Fields specifically noted that plug-in hybrids will be the category with the fastest growth in coming years.

Why is Ford going slow on EVs? That’s easy: the short-term scenario of low gas prices means that those electrified cars aren’t hot sellers. So far this year, US sales of Ford’s hybrids and plug-in hybrids have fallen 6 percent. In the meantime, sales of its SUVs and pickup trucks—including the top-selling F-150—rose 16 percent in the first three months of 2016.

EV fans should keep an eye on Ford—especially if you’re looking for a plug-in hybrid. There could be attractive plug-in hybrids coming soon. And Ford should be highly regarded as a big domestic automaker that continues to invest in electrified technology. But nobody should expect Ford to be in the race with, say, Tesla or Chevy, for a 200-mile electrified model.

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