One of the biggest challenges facing automakers today is building cars that are “greener” and more fuel efficient, without significantly increasing prices across the board. Consumers want cars that are eco-friendly and return respectable fuel economy; the problem is they’re just not willing to pay more money for them. Throw in the new CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) requirements of 39 MPG for cars and 30 MPG for light trucks (35.5 MPG combined) by 2016, and manufacturers are scrambling to come up with ways to achieve these targets.
Audi is banking on clean diesel to hit these numbers, while Mercedes, Porsche and Toyota are focusing on hybrid technology. GM and Nissan are working on practical EVs, so where does that leave Ford? Are they backing a particular horse in this race?
I recently had a chance to discuss Ford’s near term product strategy with Barb Samardzich, Ford’s VP of Powertrain Operations. The future, as Ford sees it, isn’t restricted to a single technology. They’ve developed hybrids, including the Ford Fusion Hybrid, the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid and the Ford Escape Hybrid; in fact, Ford currently builds more hybrids than any other domestic manufacturer. They’ve taken an extremely bold step with the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid, which is priced identically to the conventional Lincoln MKZ, ensuring that the company loses money on every MKZ Hybrid sold. Why do this? To gauge how the public actually feels about hybrid vehicles, when the issue of additional cost is removed from the equation.
Ford is creating EVs as well, and has launched the Ford Transit EV for the commercial market. A next generation Ford Focus EV is under development, with an expected launch in 2012 or 2013. Ford is partnering with Coulomb Technologies to promote the growth of ChargePoint Level III (“quick charge”) charging stations throughout the country, with a heavy focus on EV-centric markets like Los Angeles. Coulomb even has an iPhone app called “ChargePoint”, which gives EV drivers the location of the nearest ChargePoint Station.
The most significant short term technology for Ford remains EcoBoost, which combines smaller displacement engines with turbocharging and direct injection. The results are power comparable to a V6 or V8 motor, with fuel economy similar to an inline four or V6 engine. Ford is also working hard to reduce vehicle weight and size where possible, and switching to unibody construction on vehicles like the Explorer, all in an effort to boost fuel economy across the product range.
About the only technology you won’t see from Ford on these shores is clean diesel. When I asked Barb Samardzich to elaborate on this, she explained that it was a matter of simple economics. The EPA’s current standard for diesel automobile emissions are much stricter than the current Euro 5 standards; in fact, they’re on par with Euro 6 standards, which won’t be implemented in Europe until 2014. Ford is capable of creating diesel motors that meet these higher standards, but doing so would increase the selling price of a vehicle considerably. Even the 30% better fuel economy that diesels typically achieve wouldn’t produce a favorable payback over the life of the vehicle with diesel fuel priced at or above regular gasoline. Should diesel prices drop, Ford is ready, willing and able to re-examine diesel as a viable alternative for the U.S. market.