Bill Ford Sends Mixed Messages About Electric Cars

By · March 04, 2011

Bill Ford at 2011 TED Conference

In a pair of talks in California this week, Bill Ford confirmed his company’s commitment to electric cars and simultaneously said that its future is uncertain. “We’ve made a big bet on electric, and I think it has a really interesting future,” said Ford, the company’s chairman and the great-grandson of the company's founder Henry Ford. “But the pace of which it develops, I think anybody that tells you [what that is], is lying. You just throw a dart.”

Ford was responding to a question from the Wall Street Journal’s environment editor Jeff Ball—during the Eco:nomics conference in Santa Barbara—who pointed to Nissan’s “aggressive” plans to sell 200,000 electric cars a year. Ball asked Ford why Ford isn’t producing new models designed and built specifically as electric cars.

Ford said that the Chevy Volt and Nissan LEAF are “talismanic” vehicles—apparently meaning that the models are supposed to have magical protective powers for their companies. In the meanwhile, Ford is electrifying vehicles that are already well-known in the market—such as the Ford Focus. This strategy, according to Ford, will allow Ford Motor Company to respond to an uncertain market for EVs. “We can ramp up or not,” he said, depending on gas prices and the rollout of charging infrastructure.

Ford Focus Electric

Instead of building a stand-alone dedicated EV (the way that Nissan, G.M., B.M.W. and others are doing) Ford will use existing platforms, like the Focus, to create its electric cars.

Mr. Ford said that lack of charging infrastructure for electric cars was “the reason it died” a century ago, when a third of all vehicles were electric. He added that “we have the same issue” today. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, Ford worried that stand-alone electric vehicles might not appeal to enough consumers—and thus force the company to put big incentives on EVs in an effort to “shove them out the door, somehow."

Ford also made it clear that his company will invest in biofuels, efficient internal combustion engines, clean diesel and hydrogen-powered cars. “I’m a little less excited about hydrogen today, than I certainly was a few years ago, but we don’t want to drop it completely,” Ford told Ball. Any of these technologies could be moved around to various world markets because Ford is committed to global vehicle and technology platforms.

Environmental Wacko

While the exact green technology roadmap is uncertain, Ford expressed a sense of vindication that the entire auto industry and market is moving toward efficiency and eco-friendly vehicles. He told audiences yesterday at the 2011 Technology Entertainment and Design conference in Long Beach, that he was viewed as a “radical” and was told that he should “stop hanging out with environmental wackos,” when he first espoused his green believes as Ford CEO in the early 2000s.

At TED, he predicted that consumers would begin moving toward hybrid and electric cars, as gas prices continue to climb. He also warned that major global cities overcrowded with cars will have a dire impact on mobility, but that advanced communications technologies could help mitigate those congestion problems. "We are going to build smart cars, but we also need to build smart roads, smart parking, smart public transportation systems and more," said Ford.

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