Ford Making All the Right Moves To Lead in Plug-in Cars

Ford Motor Company is clearly on a roll. Despite a hiccup that sank its stock price on January 28th, the company had its most profitable year in more than a decade in 2010, and the Ford Explorer was named Truck of the Year at the recent NAIAS. The company has rebounded without the aid of government assistance, and its focus on fuel efficient and electric vehicles is positioning the company for continued growth.

Ford will be playing catch up in the market for plug-in vehicles (PEV) when the 2012 Ford Focus EV (based on the C-car platform) arrives. But while some folks may have assumed Ford had its eyes wide shut when GM and Nissan were undertaking the risky business of being the first on the continent with mass-market plug-in vehicles, we believe that Ford has been wise to take a methodical approach to delivering vehicles based on its own production and technology schedules.

By leveraging a platform that is shared by several models, Ford can quickly roll out additional electrified models, such as the Ford C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrid (PHEV), which is due for the 2013 model year. Ford says the Energi will have a greater driving range than the Volt or any other PEV. The Ford Transit Connect EV van, which began shipping last year, is giving fleet owners experience with the company’s electric drive technology.

The Ford Focus EV will have an advantage by cutting the recharging time when using the standard (Level 2) charging equipment in half versus the competition. (GM and Nissan both chose to install less-expensive onboard charging equipment which limits how fast the batteries can accept a charge.) Ford has chosen far and away the most recognizable name for its EV charging partner by working with Best Buy, which will sell charging equipment and assist with home charging equipment installations.

North American Plug-in Vehicle Market Share, 2015

But will Ford’s strategy of ceding the early lead and leveraging its most popular vehicle platform be the right cocktail for drivers thirsty to drive electric? Prior to Ford’s January announcement of the expanded roster of plug-in vehicles, Pike Research predicted that in 2015, Toyota would have a slight lead in PEV sales in North America with more than 73,000 vehicles sold, for a 26 percent market share. Ford and GM were expected to be the outsiders looking in, vying for second place, both with 23 percent of the PEV market.

Shifting the balance of power to become the top gun in PEV sales by 2015 (which in this case is likely a net difference of less than 10,000 vehicles) requires that Ford delivers on the promise of reliability while offering a driving experience that is superior to its fossil-fuel fleet. If its PEVs are priced right, consumers are likely to welcome Ford as a PEV maker. Data from Pike Research’s 2010 Electric Vehicle Consumer Survey showed Ford as the brand that consumers most often responded they would consider when purchasing a PEV.

The competition will invest heavily to prevent the legend of Ford CEO Alan Mulally from growing. GM’s Chevrolet Volt has been very well received, and the drive train technology will be shared with other platforms. Nissan is emphasizing, electrification throughout its fleet. Despite a slower start, Toyota should be considered the front runner for 2015 based on the likelihood that the Prius PHEV will be the top selling PEV. Pike Research anticipates that plug-in hybrid vehicles will outsell battery electric vehicles by more than 2 to 1 during 2015.

Ford must fulfill its early promise and roll out additional desirable PEVs by 2015. It won’t be easy, but it is not mission impossible either.

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