Ford gets serious about electric cars – USA TODAY
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Chasing Tesla and General Motors, Ford hopes a $4.5 billion investment will help it leapfrog to the front the pack when it comes to developing electrified cars.
But costs remain stubbornly high and progress relatively slow in developing the next generation of batteries that it will need to draw loads of consumers to electric cars. So far Wall Street isn’t offering Ford any encouragement either, sending Ford stock to a three-year low last month after the announcement about its electric-car plans.
“Battery costs are not coming down fast enough to democratize it,” says Kevin Layden, director of Ford’s electrification programs. While no breakthroughs are in sight, he says scientists and engineers are finding gradual ways to reduce the costs of lithium-ion batteries by 10% to 20% from one generation to the next, reducing their weight and cost while boosting their power.
More of those kinds of improvements will be critical to making a success out of CEO Mark Fields’ plan to build 13 new hybrid, plug-in hybrid and fully electric models by 2020. Fields wants 40% of Ford’s nameplates to have an electric option by 2020, up from 13% today. Despite low fuel prices, automakers remain under huge pressure to reduce emissions and boost fuel economy amid concern about global warming.
But Ford’s long-range plans don’t appear to be bowling over investors. Last month, Ford shares sank to their lowest level since late 2012. The plunge is due to myriad reasons — rising labor costs, worries about South American sales sand other factors. But the commitment to electrified cars, which have historically brought low profit margins because of expensive batteries and high manufacturing costs, haven’t helped matters.
Unlike companies like Tesla, GM or even Nissan, Ford hasn’t been perceived as a leader in electric cars, says Roland Hwang, director of energy and transportation programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It is one of those areas where you want to go big or go home,” he says.
Now, automakers are pouring their efforts into developing batteries that will cut their electric-car production costs and allow more range than ever before. Tesla’s Model S has maximum range approaching 300 miles per charge and the electric-car maker is building a $4 billion battery “Gigafactory” outside Reno to cut costs through mass production. GM’s new Bolt electric car is billed as capable of 200 miles a charge. Ford, for its part, is boosting the range of its Focus Electric to 100 miles a charge, up from 76, behind the others.
Ford, however, is out to prove it is serious about developing long-range electric cars that rival or beat the competition.
Much of Ford’s battery research is taking place at a historic building on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, a 45-minute drive from Ford’s Dearborn, Mich., headquarters. It’s stocked with the same kind of equipment found in commercial plants so engineers can develop better batteries that can be more easily put straight into mass production.
Ford kicked in $2.1 million for the battery lab, with another $6.6 million coming from the state of Michigan and the university. Teams of researchers come into the lab for projects, often lasting weeks, to investigate new ideas for battery chemistry, construction and how it delivers its electrical charge.
Improvements usually come in small ways, like using thinner electrodes to boost energy per volume. Or it might be trying out what Senior Lab Manager Greg Less calls one of the “really promising” alternative chemical formulations out there, like lithium-silicon instead of the mainstay, lithium-ion.
“People are still looking for a breakthrough, but we are innovating with what we have now,” says Bruno Vanzieleghem, the lab’s assistant director of operations.
While Ford is trying to innovate in the lab, it is also paying close attention to consumer trends. Like other automakers, it analyzes data from its electric cars that’s collected while they recharge.
For instance, Ford knows from the 610 million miles that all of its Focus Electrics racked up so far that they travel an average of 42 miles a day during what is usually four trips, says Mike Tinskey, Ford’s global director of Connected Services Solutions. The Focus Electrics save “just under” 1 million gallons of gasoline a month compared to the gas-powered models, 30% of which is from carbon-free sources.
Ford is using the data to figure out how to make its future plug-in cars more appealing. But competition is only growing more fierce.
Ford “is the thick of it” when it comes to trying to get ahead of electification technology, says Ron Cogan, publisher of the Green Car Journal. “All of the automakers are doing what they can to dive further into electrification.”
The NRDC’s Hwang says despite it’s big investment, Ford needs to get a lot further ahead before it fears rivals less.
“Ford should be a little nervous,” he says.