Ford starts to electrify its European markets amid challenges

  • 24-Sep-2013 09:17 EDT
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Ford's Saarlouis assembly plant in Germany now replicates the production line at Ford's Wayne assembly plant in Michigan. Both plants build the Focus EV and conventional Focus models on the same line.

Europe is now ready for electric vehicles, believes Dr. Roland Krüger, head of Ford of Europe’s (FoE) electric powertrain development. Dr. Krüger announced in Frankfurt that for MY2014, three vehicle types would be offered: the pure-electric Focus, the C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid (PHEV), and the Mondeo Hybrid (Fusion Hybrid in North America).

“We have the opportunity to bring the technology we have in the U.S. to Europe,” he said. That technology represents the building blocks on which the company plans to establish a much wider presence for Ford product electrification that may include in-wheel motor (eWheelDrive) technology and could eventually lead to a production fuel cell vehicle solution.

The Focus Electric powertrain for Europe is identical to that offered in the U.S., with a 6.6-kW·h battery and performance figures that include a top speed of 137 km/h (85 mph) and a maximum driving range of 162 km (100 mi).

The C-Max Energi, Ford’s first PHEV, has a 7.6-kW·h lithium-ion battery and is designed to achieve sub-50 g/km CO2 emissions. The pure-electric mode target is 30 km (19 mi). Using a charging station, recharge time can be as little as three hours, according to Dr. Krüger.

The Mondeo (Fusion) hybrid can achieve 136 km/h on electric power alone with fuel economy of 4.5 L/100 km and CO2 emissions of sub-99g/km.

Ford FCV decision in 2015?

A fuel cell solution remains a difficult challenge for the entire automotive industry. In Europe, the projections and promises of the late 1990s have faded, overshadowed by the realities of cost and public acceptance. There is also the continuing lack of supporting (hydrogen) infrastructure. Fifteen years ago, major OEMs and suppliers were indicating that 2003-4 would see meaningful numbers of fuel cell cars leased or sold in Europe. The cautious note struck by some senior executives who put the likely date at 2010-11 was regarded as overly pessimistic. In fact, it was overly optimistic.

But with Ford in strategic co-operation with Daimler and Renault-Nissan on fuel cell stack technology, development work is progressing. Dr. Krüger said a go/no-go decision on fuel cell commercialization could be made in the next two to three years, when he expects the development to reach a degree of maturity.

Daimler had hoped to sell a five-digit number of fuel cell B-Class cars beginning in 2013, but the company has shelved that plan.

Dr. Krüger is cautious about volume-production fuel cell technology being achieved soon. “In particular, it concerns cost reduction and the infrastructure to support the fuel cell," he noted. "I am still very much in favor of fuel cell technology, though, and I think that eventually it will be ready to commercialize such a vehicle. But it probably needs government support for the necessary infrastructure and a broader approach towards hydrogen.”

If all the business pieces do eventually fall into place, Ford would be ready with the right vehicles, he believes.

If European governments can jointly make a strategic decision to develop a broadly accessible hydrogen infrastructure, Dr. Krüger believes fuel cell technology could be entering volume production by about 2025. “But it needs that decision,” he stressed.

Consumer data-driven

Ford’s vehicle electrification work began with an electric version of the Model T, the outcome of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison pooling their expertise. In 1966, Ford again dabbled with an EV—the Comuta, which had lead-acid batteries. But it was not until the dawn of the 21st century that increasing regulatory and environmental pressure coincided with advances in Li-ion battery technology to push Ford into a significant development program. By 2007, a PHEV test fleet was established and in 2011, the electric Focus became available.

Although gasoline remains the IC engine of choice for hybrids by most OEMs, diesel engines are a temptation despite their high unit cost. However, the efficiency gap between diesel and gasoline continues to narrow, explained Dr. Krüger, with no sign of the former achieving a step-change in its position in the foreseeable future. He believes gasoline will continue to close the gap.

Ford now has 270,000 electrified vehicles on the road, mostly in the U.S. Dr. Krüger said the number of Ford employees globally working on electrification will rise rapidly. The current figure of 400 is set to increase to about 550 to design and engineer the company’s next-generation electrified products. Ford conducts its Europe R&D in Aachen. 

The Focus Electric for Europe will be built at the company’s Saarlouis plant. As part of a strategy already proven at the Wayne (MI) assembly plant, both conventional and electric versions of the car will be built on the same line. In the future all Ford passenger cars will be designed and engineered to receive either electrified or conventional powertrains.

Ford sponsored a poll in Europe to better understand public opinion on a range of mobility issues. The survey taken in summer 2012 included 6028 respondents in Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the U.K. Its results ranged from the pragmatic to the idealistic.

Seventy-two percent of those polled believe electrified vehicles are better for the environment; just over 50% realized that their daily life would be “impossible” without a car. But only 28% would consider buying a vehicle with an electrified powertrain. A modest 23% said they wanted to change their future travel behavior to be "greener."

These results can be variously interpreted but it is clearly a very big step for an end user to move from “considering” buying a vehicle with an electric dimension to actually purchasing or leasing one.

The hydrogen infrastructure challenge

All this was underlined in Brussels at the sixth Drive ‘n’ Ride event organized by Air Liquide, Daimler, Honda, Hyundai, Intelligent Energy, Toyota, and Linde, in partnership with the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking, a public-private partnership. The event was under the patronage of Carlo Fidanza, a member of the European Parliament involved with clean power issues.

At the event, European Union Commissioner Siim Kallas, Vice President in charge of transport, said: “To deploy hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles requires a combination of reducing costs and increasing efficiency. Consumer acceptance is key for take-up. Decisive European action from industry and member states is critical to make our transport system more sustainable and environmentally responsible.”

The lack of adequate hydrogen-refueling infrastructure across the EU was highlighted at the event. Experts noted the significant efforts under way in several member states, such as Germany, the U.K., Scandinavia, the Netherlands, France, and Italy, but they said such activities must be brought together in a coordinated strategy and given a political boost.

Industry speakers emphasized that no technology succeeds in isolation. Pierre Etienne Franc, Vice President of Air Liquide and Chairman of the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking, said strong public-private partnerships are essential to bringing innovation to the mass market. He noted that in Europe, carmakers, gas companies, and other industry players "have been working closely with decision-makers to make clean fuel cell electric vehicles an everyday reality for consumers."

He added: “A long-term strategy enabling private investment to scale up production to reduce costs and to build sufficient infrastructure is critical for success.”

Consumers are bound to question the move to a new type of fuel and powertrain after more than a century of increasingly reliable, safe, and effective vehicles. So the automotive and energy industries have much convincing ahead of them if the fuel cell revolution is to succeed. Short of disruptive, sustained geopolitical events that could swiftly alter the pace of technological change, Dr. Krüger’s 2025 figure for high-volume fuel cell vehicle production, which would have been considered wildly pessimistic a decade ago, may still prove to be a shade optimistic.

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