Ford Emphasizes Hybrids Over Pure Electric Cars

By · October 17, 2013

Ford Focus Electric

Ford Focus Electric.

It’s no secret that Ford’s big vehicle electrification plans—essentially to offer some form of “electrified” version for each model in its lineup—center on hybrid and plug-in hybrid drivetrains. Earlier this month, Ford gave the clearest indication yet that it considers electric cars a poor cousin to its hybrid lineup.

Speaking with GreenCarCongress earlier this month, Mike Tinskey, associate director of vehicle electrification and infrastructure at Ford, was happy to celebrate Ford’s rising market share in the electrified vehicle market. “We are on an upward trend and we are pretty proud of where we stand,” he said. “Last year at this time, we only had a fraction of the market, now we are running close to 15 percent.”

Fifteen percent? Tinskey is obviously including gas-powered no-plug hybrid vehicles in his assessment. Adding the regular Ford Fusion Hybrid and C-Max Hybrid to the mix accounts for Ford’s jump from a 7.5 percent share in 2012, to a 14.7 percent share so far this year.

To be fair, Ford’s share of plug-in hybrid sales has also swelled—from 6.2 percent in 2012, to 23.3 percent so far in 2013. However, its share of the pure electric vehicle market has plummeted, down from 4.8 percent last year to just 3.8 percent this year. That’s the equivalent of just 1,335 cars, less than the single monthly sales total for either the Nissan LEAF or the Chevrolet Volt last month. Ford sold just 110 units of the Focus EV in September.

Signs Aren’t Good

In a market where EV sales are an order of magnitude larger than they were last year, sales of the Focus Electric have dwindled. Considering Ford's lack of marketing and advertising for its first EV, as well as teething problems with both car and smartphone software, the prospects for a turnaround and steep incline in sales are not high.

That appears to be fine with Tinskey and other Ford executives who believe the move to plug-in drivetrains is a gradual one, with consumers most often starting with a hybrid car before adding a plug. “From an aspirational standpoint, our assumption is that people get used to the electric mode in hybrids. The bulk of [electric drive] customers are buying hybrids, which are now becoming mainstream. And they are not wanting to go back. In fact, they are probably going to want to go further,” he said. “My sense is that those customers will migrate to plug-in hybrids as we move forward.”

Continued Compromises

Ford is using the Focus Electric mostly to satisfy California’s Zero Emissions mandates. Yet, the company's manufacturing strategy, in which a single model is designed with the capability to accommodate a variety of drivetrains, is problematic. According to Tinskey, plug-in cars built by Ford will continue to be adapted versions of existing gasoline models. Large battery packs have to be accommodated within the car instead of being integrated into an under-floor area.  For smaller cars, like the Focus and C-Max, this means giving up passenger and/or cargo space to make room for the pack.

“Our strategy is built on how to leverage a global platform and get not only a diesel or a gasoline powertrain into the product, but how do you also get an electric powertrain into the product,” said Tinskey. “In our case, then you go down to a B-size platform with that type of strategy, you basically would have to use the majority of the trunk space.”

The solution is to produce a purpose-built electric car. But given Ford’s record on EV sales, and its focus on the larger hybrid car market, it's unlikely that will see a custom-built EV from Ford anytime soon.

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