Ford has been developing electric cars for more than a century. Will it finally deliver a winning EV?
Ford’s intent to become a leader in electric cars goes back to the company’s earliest days. In those 100-plus years, Ford produced numerous plug-in concepts, a few production models, and a lot of gas-electric hybrids. But the company’s EV efforts are mostly left undone.
Today the company is promising 16 new, pure electric cars in the next three years. As we await their arrival, let’s look for clues about the future for Ford’s electric cars by looking at its past.
As early as 1903, Henry Ford was aware that his friend Thomas Edison was experimenting with battery technology for vehicles. But it wasn’t until 1914 that Ford began openly working on a low-cost electric car. According to news accounts, the goal was to sell the so-called Edison-Ford for as low as $500, only slightly more than a Model T in the day.
“Within a year, I hope, we shall begin the manufacture of an electric automobile,” Mr. Ford told The New York Times in January 1914. “The problem so far has been to build a storage battery of light weight which would operate for long distances without recharging.”
The batteries under the seat on the first couple of electric prototypes were capable of somewhere between 50 and 100 miles on a single charge. Ford was also rumored to be establishing a Detroit-based facility to produce the first Ford EV for introduction in 1915.
During this era, electric cars were particularly appealing to women. Unlike gas cars that started with a hand-crank, battery-powered automobiles didn’t take a lot of muscle to operate. EVs were reliable, and they didn’t produce foul-smelling emissions. Henry Ford’s wife Clara, who drove an 80-mile 1914 Detroit Electric, was an early EV advocate.
By May 1914, Mr. Ford said, “It’s coming.” And he was proclaiming an EV revolution in the works. “The electric automobile will be the family carriage of the future.”
Historians aren’t certain why Ford never delivered on his promise for the Edison-Ford car. Some say that he was pulled away on other projects. But others believe that the electric self-starter was the culprit. When internal-combustion cars started replacing hand-cranks with electric-starter devices, EVs were robbed of a key selling point: ease of use. So, despite Clara’s encouragement and an investment of about $1.5 million in his electric-car project, Ford shelved his plans for a new, affordable electric vehicle.
A Long Hibernation
More than four decades passed before Ford Motor resurrected its electric-car efforts. Battery research was again underway in the late 1950s. Then, the American environmental movement gained momentum after the 1963 publication of Rachel Carson’s landmark book, Silent Spring. There was a flurry of federal legislation promoting cleaner air. Ford reportedly responded in 1966 by working on a car about the size of a Ford Falcon that could go 82 miles on a single charge.
The Wall Street Journal reported in October 1966 that Ford Motor Co. made a “major breakthrough in battery research.” The company claimed that its new batteries – using sodium-sulfur chemistry instead of lead acid – could store 15 times more energy than before. In a presentation on Oct. 3, Ford officials said the new battery technology would address the problem of limited range while offering better acceleration than gas cars.
Ford said that road testing of a new production electric car would begin in 1968. Small motors might be mounted in the wheels. But instead of introducing an EV in a popular five-passenger format like the Falcon, Ford in June 1967 unveiled its experimental all-electric Comuta minicar.
Built in England, the Ford Comuta used four 12-volt batteries to provide about 40 miles of range and a top speed of about 35 miles per hour. At the unveiling, the company said that practical electric cars would become “feasible within the next 10 years.” But the decade came and went without Ford showing progress with EVs. In 1976, Thomas J. Feaheny, vice-president for powertrain research at Ford, said, “I’m pessimistic that we'll see many electric cars in the near term.”
Fast Forward Another 20 Years
After California reaffirmed its California zero-emissions mandates in 1996, Ford needed to produce and sell at least several thousand electric cars by 2003. The company responded with two electric vehicles: the Think City microcar and the Ford Ranger EV pickup.
In 1999, Ford Motor Co. plunked down $23 million to buy Think Global – a Norway-based company that had been developing a funky, lightweight, plastic-bodied EV since 1991. After investing another $100 million in battery development, Ford in Nov. 1999 went into production of the Think City.
The two-seater offered about 53 miles of range and a top speed of 55 miles per hour. Ford also sold the Think Neighbor, a golf-cart-like all-electric utility vehicle with a top speed of 25 miles per hour. The City was offered in a 34-month lease for $199 a month. Ford had hoped to lease about 5,000 Think City cars but only managed to find about 1,000 customers.
“We don't believe that this is the future of environmental transport for the mass market," said Tim Holmes, a Ford spokesperson. By August 2002, Ford Motor Co. gave up, putting its Think division up for sale.
An All-Electric Ford Pickup
The more viable late-1990s Ford electric vehicle was the all-electric Ranger EV, a compact pickup produced with engineering support from Think. The Ranger EV was built from 1998 to 2002 – the era of General Motors’s EV1.
Ford’s electric pickup was converted from a four-cylinder Ford Ranger XL 4X2 Regular Cab. They were equipped with AM/FM radios, bench or bucket seats, and seating for two or three passengers. The nominal sticker price was set at $52,720, but Ford supported an affordable three-year lease program that put nearly all the vehicles into government fleets.
The Ranger EV used lead-acid batteries in the first year of production before switching to nickel metal hydride. The 26 kilowatt-hour nickel-based battery packs provided about 80 miles of range. The electric pickup faced a number of quality problems including diminished range after about 25,000 miles of use.
Soon after California weakened its ZEV mandates in 2003, Ford terminated the Ranger EV leases. Only 1,500 Ranger EV trucks were made over those four years. Most of them were taken back by Ford and subsequently destroyed.
The unexpected success of the Toyota Prius in the 2000s ushered in what might be described as the hybrid decade. That period was defined by automakers once again questioning if batteries were affordable and robust enough for pure electric cars. Ford shifted its efforts to hybrids, an approach that continues with its current lineup.
In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Ford was well positioned to push for EVs – a technology favored by the new Obama Administration. The company unveiled its Focus Electric at the 2009 Frankfurt Motor Show. Using the Focus platform was a logical choice. Auto critics consistently pointed to the Focus as one of the most attractive small cars on the road. The EV variant, which went into production by 2011, used a 23 kilowatt-hour battery pack officially rated to provide 76 miles of range.
When it was introduced, the Focus Electric was the only pure EV that looked and drove like a so-called normal car. That was a welcome relief from geeky EV designs like the first-generation Nissan LEAF and Mitsubishi i-MiEV. Also, the Focus was fun to drive. The 134-horsepower motor provided decent zip. The liquid-cooled battery management system ensured consistent year-round range and battery life.
The big drawback with the Ford Focus Electric was lack of cargo space. As a gas car converted to run on electricity, the main battery pack was packaged under the liftgate reducing hatch cargo space by 39 percent, to just 14.5 cubic feet.
The Focus Electric’s initial starting price was $39,995 before incentives. To keep sales flowing, Ford in 2013 Ford dropped the price by $4,000 and offered a $6,000 dealership incentive, reducing the net price to $29,200. By the following year, that became the Focus Electric’s standard price.
Months before the Focus Electric went on sale, Ford’s chief executive Alan Mulally was downplaying the viability of EVs. “The infrastructure is just not there yet,” Mulally told Newsweek, from the sidelines of the 2012 Detroit Auto Show. “These are very expensive vehicles because the batteries and electronics are very expensive.”
Even as Ford increased the size of the battery in 2017 to 33.5 kilowatt-hours – expanding its range to 115 miles – the Focus Electric was an also-ran. All told, Ford sold about 9,300 units before the company killed the Focus Electric (and most of its cars) in April 2018.
Experiments and Plug-in Hybrids
There were other short-lived Ford EVs. In 2010, Ford retrofitted a few hundred Transit Connect delivery vehicles to run purely on electricity. The company ran a pilot program to create a plug-in hybrid version of the Escape Plug-in Hybrid. And in 2011, it unveiled the Ford Evos, a plug-in hybrid GT concept with gull-wing doors.
The company’s most successful production plug-ins were the Ford C-Max Energi and Ford Fusion Energi (the current sole surviving model).
When the C-Max arrived in 2012, it looked like a winner. Only available as a hybrid and plug-in hybrid, the small and tall wagon-like compact provided 20 miles of all-electric range and a 188-hp power plant. The time seemed right for Americans to embrace the type of small utility car that Europeans have long embraced. But the experiment never quite worked. Consumers were confused about the in-between nature of the C-Max’s dimensions and the hard-to-describe powertrain. Besides, the Volt offered a lot more all-electric range.
In 2013, complaints and lawsuits emerged about the C-Max Hybrid not achieving its advertised 47-mpg EPA rating. Ford downgraded its fuel-economy rating of the hybrid to 40 on the highway – lowering it a second time in 2014.
The C-Max had a couple of years of decent sales. But the numbers were always well behind the Chevy Volt and Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid. By November 2017, Ford pulled the plug on the C-Max.
Consumers were more open to the Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid as a mid-size sedan with a traditional trunk. It ranked as the sixth most popular plug-in hybrid in 2018 – behind the Prius Prime, Honda Clarity PHEV, Chevy Volt, and BMW 530e. With Ford eliminating its cars (in favor of SUVs and trucks), the Fusion is now a moribund model.
To get its EV program back on track, Ford announced in Dec. 2015 that it would invest $4.5 billion in “electrified” solutions (including hybrids, plug-in hybrids, pure EVs, self-driving cars, and all kinds of mobility services). The company promised that 40 percent of its nameplates would have electrified options by 2020.
By 2016, news emerged that Ford would create an affordable 200-mile EV, possible called the Model E, to compete with the Tesla Model 3. Sources said it would go into production in spring 2019.
But the biggest announcement about Ford’s future EV plans came in Dec. 2017. The company said it would create a new division dubbed Team Edison to design and produce electric and autonomous vehicles in a 45,000-square-foot former Ford factory in downtown Detroit.
On Sept. 7, 2018, Ford issued a teaser image for the first vehicle to be produced in the company’s new EV era. It showed the profile of Mustang-inspired 300-mile electric SUV, which is expected in 2020.
“We are being tasked to set the future trajectory of the company,” wrote Darren Palmer, Ford’s product development director for electric vehicles.
Palmer said that he and his team were “energized” by the company making an $11 billion investment to produce 16 fully electric vehicles by 2022. The Chinese market will figure prominently. The list of plug-in models includes versions of the Ford Escape crossover SUV, Lincoln MKC, and Transit Connect.
Ford continues to trickle out news about future electric vehicles. Last week, Jim Farley, Ford’s president of global markets, confirmed plans for an all-electric version of the F-Series pickup – the best-selling vehicle in the US for more than four decades. No date was given for when a new Ford electric pickup would be introduced.