Ford Brings New-Age Approach to Future Transportation for the Masses

By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2009-10-29

Ford Brings New-Age Approach to Future Transportation for the Masses

Electricity as a power source for motor vehicles goes back much further than most people think. At the turn of the 20th century, about one-third of the several hundred motor vehicles in New York City were electric-powered.

In 1914-the year World War I began-the president of the Minnesota Buggy Company wrote a letter to two men, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, suggesting that they meet and talk about the possibility of using only electrical power for mass-produced automobiles, rather than steam or gasoline-fueled internal combustion engines.

Having heavily invested in gasoline engines since the founding of his company in 1900, Mr. Ford thought about it but tabled the idea. And although electric vehicles are often used in specific sectors (such as golf carts and public transit), they haven't yet become a staple of the world's personal transportation.

But their day appears to be on the horizon. It's literally taken more than a century for the de facto control of motor vehicle transportation to begin to move away from oil and gasoline companies to alternative fuel suppliers, but that shift is finally taking place.

Ford has always been about transportation for the masses, so it would follow that the corporation-a 109-year-old company based in Dearborn, Mich., employing about 205,000 people in 90 plants around the world-should be in the front row of the stakeholders in this realm.

Now all the major car companies are developing electric-powered and hybrid vehicles. As for Ford, after more than 95 years, today the automaker has four categories of higher-mileage and electrified vehicles either on the roads or in development: cars with EcoBoost gasoline engines, Hybrids, Plug-In Hybrids and Battery Electric cars.

Click here to see photos of Ford's electric and hybrid cars.  

The hybrids have been out there for five years. The company has several models, including SUVs, sedans, minivans and subcompacts, with hybrid gas/electric engine options.

Ford's EcoBoost engines are designed to inject a precisely metered amount of fuel directly into the combustion chamber. When this is combined with turbocharging, customers get better performance and make fewer trips to the gas pump, the company said.

The EcoBoost design will deliver the power and torque of a V-8 engine with the fuel efficiency of a V-6, Ford claims. Ford plans to deliver EcoBoost across the full range of its product portfolio, from small cars to large trucks, by 2013.

The earliest Battery Electric models will be ready for sale in 2010, with the others available by 2012. In a San Francisco demonstration on Oct. 22, the company rolled out an Escape Plug-In Hybrid and an all-electric Focus.

Ford Director of Electrification Heads Corporate Effort

Ford's new director of Global Electrification (yes, that is her title), Nancy Gioia, has a unique role. It's her job to lead strategy and planning for the next generation of Ford's global electric vehicle portfolio, touching all aspects of electrified transportation-including product planning, supplier partnerships, standards, and collaboration with the energy industry and government agencies.

Gioia told a group of journalists and analysts at the demonstration event in San Francisco that Ford expects to be selling 10 to 20 percent of its vehicles with electric-only power plants by 2020.

All those hundreds of thousands of new power-hungry cars and trucks will be sucking more and more electricity out of the U.S. power grid on a sharply escalating basis. How will the grid-already a fragile resource-be able to withstand this increasing demand?

"In 1914, it was all about the battery. Here in 2009, with 2 percent to 3 percent of cars on the road being hybrids, it's still about the battery," Gioia said. "It's going to take a lot of education-for the stakeholders and general public-over the next few years to understand what this new demand is going to mean in our daily lives.

"A great deal of collaboration will be needed, among government agencies, utility companies, commercial businesses and consumers. This is because we will need to rebuild our power resource infrastructure to make it more efficient and also to enable plug-in stations everywhere-at our homes, businesses, public places and so on. The vehicles will be ready, but our infrastructure will take longer to accommodate them."

Gioia said as cars come online to fuel up, inevitable bumps in power draw will happen at certain times of the day, such as mornings and late afternoons. Eventually users will be educated about the need to plug their cars in as often as possible during off-peak hours, such as overnight, to lessen the strain on the power grid.

National and international standards will need to be researched and agreed upon.

"I was in China recently, and there are five electric utilities serving that whole huge nation," Gioia said. "All of them have different kinds of plugs, for example. It's a real mess, and it will remain so until good standards are in place."

As electric power becomes more prominent, lighter vehicles will be required. Fuel savings will grow in the midterm future-between 2012 and 2020-as weight reductions become a focus of Ford's plan. Targeted vehicle weight reductions will range from 250 to 750 pounds, depending on the segment, without compromising safety, Gioia said.

Ford is also conducting research and testing in other alternative fuel areas, such as clean diesel fuel and biofuels. But the work is slow-moving and costly.

Hydrogen power is something that continues to be examined. Ford said it is currently conducting research on hydrogen fuel cell technology, which holds promise as a longer-term solution. The company's global fleet of 30 hydrogen-powered Focus fuel cell vehicles has accumulated more than 1 million miles in real-world testing.

While hydrogen holds promise, challenges related to the technology's high cost and the lack of fueling station infrastructure remain, the company said.

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