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Placing a big bet on an electrified future

June 13, 2011
When it comes down to the bare essentials, only a couple of data points really matter when the talk turns to the future of alternatively powered vehicles – how many are built and sold every year. I mean, let’s face it – you can talk until you’re ...

When it comes down to the bare essentials, only a couple of data points really matter when the talk turns to the future of alternatively powered vehicles – how many are built and sold every year.

I mean, let’s face it – you can talk until you’re blue in the face about how using alternative means of vehicle propulsion will reduce foreign oil imports, decrease harmful exhaust pollutants, and help fight global warming. But all of that is but so much wishful thinking unless alternatively powered vehicles are actually manufactured and then purchased in significant numbers by commercial fleets and consumers alike.

Now, however, Ford Motor Co. is taking a swing at the first part of that equation where electric power is concerned, saying it plans to triple production capacity of its electrified vehicle lineup by 2013 – in particular, focusing on its all-new seven-person C-MAX Hybrid and C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrid, which begin production next year.

[Ford’s Sherif Marakby provides an overview below of the company’s new hybrid gasoline-electric powered C-MAX.]

Right now, Ford said it sells approximately 35,000 electrified vehicles a year, led by its hybrid Fusion sedan and Escape SUV hybrid. Within two years, the automakers plans to expand capacity at several of its U.S. plants to get that built rate up to 100,000 units annually – not a huge number, by any means, but still representing a significant investment in time, money and energy.

The OEM said both its new C-MAX Hybrid and C-MAX Energi models will be built alongside the 2012 Ford Focus and Focus Electric at its assembly in Wayne, MI, meaning gasoline-powered vehicles, full-electric vehicles, hybrid and plug-in hybrids are all going to be manufactured under one roof.

In total, Ford said this production capacity effort should add more than 220 jobs in Michigan alone, including a combined 170 jobs at Ford's Rawsonville and Van Dyke Transmission plants, plus more than 50 new engineers based in Dearborn in the past 12 months specifically for the design and development of key component for Ford hybrids, plug-in hybrids and full battery electric vehicles.

[For a little more insight into Ford’s global electric vehicle production plan – including pure electrics, hybrids, plug-in hybrids and hydrogen-powered fuel cells – check out the interview below with Andreas Schamel, head of Ford's research facility in Aachen, Germany, conducted by TheChargingPoint.com in late April.]

Ford said its Rawsonville Plant in Ypsilanti, MI, is on tap to assemble advanced lithium-ion battery packs for C-MAX Hybrid, along with larger lithium-ion battery packs for C-MAX Energi that’s being transferred from a supplier in Mexico.

Both battery packs are being designed in-house by Ford engineers, the automaker noted, and although the battery packs differ in size, energy storage and power output, they are designed for efficient production in the same flexible manufacturing facility.

Ford's Van Dyke Transmission Plant in Sterling Heights, MI, is also going to take over production of electric drive transaxles, work currently outsourced to a supplier facility in Japan for current model hybrids.

What’s driving Ford’s efforts to beef up production capacity for hybrids and all-electric vehicles is the belief that we’re on the cusp of a sales boom, driven in part by the high fuel prices experienced by much of the world since the beginning of this year.

For example, consulting firm Pike Research anticipates that the fleet market for hybrid electric passenger cars and light duty trucks is expected to grow at a rate of 18% between 2010 and 2015, resulting in sales of more than 740,000 hybrid fleet vehicles worldwide in 2015.

The firm also predicts that hybrids will account for 3.7% of global light duty vehicle fleet sales in 2015, while the largest single market, the U.S., will see hybrids reach 7.4% of light duty vehicle fleet sales.

It helps, too, that the next generation hybrids Ford is bringing to market – especially the C-MAX – offer some significant improvements over current models.

For starters, Ford said its C-MAX Hybrid is the first of two new hybrid models that’ll use lithium ion battery technology, which are up to 50% lighter and 25% smaller than current nickel-metal-hydride batteries and increase the amount of energy available to extend the vehicle's driving distance and boost fuel economy.

The C-MAX Energi, Ford noted, will feature a 240-volt charging system and is also being engineered to deliver more overall driving range than any other plug-in or extended range electric vehicle, the automaker said.

Yet, of course, ramping up production capacity is only one-half of the equation, for folks have got to snap up these vehicles after the roll off the assembly line and reach the dealership lot. That means we’ll need to do a bit of waiting to see if the second half of Ford’s electric bet pays off.

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