Ford Neglects Focus Electric, But It's Still California-Compliant

By · June 14, 2013

Ford Focus Electric

Ford's global director of electrification, Nancy Gioia, charges the Ford Focus Electric's during the vehicle's reveal in New York City, Friday, Jan. 7, 2011. (Ford photo)

The Focus Electric is “an important part of our overall strategy,” I was told by John Viera, Ford’s global director for sustainability and vehicle environmental matters. But it doesn’t always look like that—the car seems like a red-headed stepchild when compared to the company’s C-MAX and Fusion, both of which come in popular plug-in hybrid versions.

The Focus hasn’t been aggressively marketed, and partly as a result it hasn’t sold well—through May this year, only 723 found new homes. As you may have heard, Ford doesn’t intend to make any changes to the Focus for 2014. The undeniably nice car, at $39,200 (before rebate) or $284 a month for a three-year lease, is also priced above the current market—where $199 leases are increasingly common.

Follow the Money

To its credit, Ford is fairly upfront about hybrids being where the money is. “Different customers have different needs,” Viera said, “and the subset who wants battery cars is smaller than the subset who wants plug-in hybrids.”

Nancy Gioia, Ford's director of global electrification (pictured above), is even more candid about the battery car's prospects. “The batteries are still very expensive, and the payback period tough,” she said. Still, battery cars "are a hoot to drive. That is not the issue. The economic viability of it is. We still see battery electric as niche. We think that by focusing on the plug-ins and that awareness, we actually end up benefiting both the hybrids and the plug-ins.”

Ford C-MAX Energi

The C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrid is selling well enough to satisfy California regulators. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Yes, those economics are certainly true at Ford. In the first quarter, Ford sold 21,080 hybrids (including plug-in versions), its best quarter to date—up 324 percent. Through April, it moved 11,708 C-MAX Hybrids and 13,891 Fusion Hybrids.

Copacetic With California?

Ford is right to be proud of its hybrid sales, though it’s probably not making Toyota (which late last year had more than 60 percent of the electrified vehicle market) nervous just yet. A more pressing problem is whether Ford will be in compliance with California’s zero emission car rules, which are the major reason some automakers made battery EVs in the first place. “We get significant California credits for cars like the Focus, and a smaller amount from plug-in hybrids,” Viera said. “Obviously, we have to sell an increasing number of zero emission cars to meet the rules, and we’re trying to produce vehicles to meet those requirements. It will become more challenging as the quotas increase.”

For now, Ford’s likely to be OK with the California Air Resources Board. Jay Friedland, legislative director of California-based Plug In America, said that Ford’s “magic number” of battery electrics (or fuel-cell cars; they’re zero emission, too) is around 1,600 between this year and the middle of 2015.

Plug-In Hybrids Count, Too

The company can get half its credits from plug-in hybrids, and carries over some banked credits from 2012, he said. Beyond that, Ford has the option of aping Honda and buying compliance credits from Tesla—which raked in $63 million from just that source in the first quarter of 2013. But even with a fairly neglected Focus campaign, Ford will meet its near-term numbers.

CARB can be a bit of a Chinese puzzle, but Simon Mui, clean vehicles and fuels scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, concurs with Friedland that Ford isn’t in a bad position. “It’s complicated because of all the credits you get for different technologies,” Mui told me, “but at the end of the day I agree that Ford is doing pretty darn well. It’s on the glide path with the 700 battery EVs it has sold so far.” Ford also comfortably meets its plug-in hybrid quotas.

What's Ahead?

Things get much tougher around 2018, Mui said, because Ford and other automakers have to meet doubled quotas, Mui said. “That’s when it really ramps up,” he said. By then, Ford should have really moved beyond compliance cars and committed wholeheartedly to a battery platform.

For its part, CARB doesn't want to get down to cases about the performance of car companies. "We can't comment on Ford's compliance because it is based on sales, and we don't know future model year sales," said the agency's spokesman, Stanley Young, in an email.

**

Moving beyond the Focus and into "well to wheels" type sustainability, Ford seems to be doing well. In its new 2012/13 Sustainability Report, the automaker said it had cut carbon emissions 37 percent per vehicle at its global facilities between 2000 and 2012. That translates to 4.65 million metric tons in savings. Ford hopes to go another 30 percent between 2010 and 2025.

Waste-to-landfill was cut 19 percent just between 2011 and 2012. In that same time period, global water use declined by 1.95 million cubic meters, saving $3 million for Ford. The company also moved to second worldwide in the Interbrands Global Brands report.

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