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Afraid to commit? Why Ford seems unfocused on the Focus Electric

Faking-the-funk-Why-Ford-might-be-overstating-its-confidence-in-electric-cars

It’s shaping up to be a very busy year for Ford. Despite showing up late to the party with an all-electric car, the American automaker is on an electrical march, releasing a whole fleet of new and electrified cars for 2012. The C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid will blend the cleanliness of electricity and the convenience of gas. The Fusion Hybrid will get 47 MPG. The Focus Electric will forgo gasoline entirely as the company’s first all-electric passenger car. But will this multi-pronged attack be enough to spear rival automakers such as Nissan, Toyota, and GM, or does it lack the simplicity and focus that made models like the Prius such a hit?

According to Ford electrification specialist Amy Machesney, Ford’s multifaceted strategy boils down to giving consumers choice and flexibility. We sat down with Machesney in Portland, Oregon (one of the key pilot cities for the launch of Ford Focus Electric), to find out more about the Focus Electric, how the rest of the green fleet fits in, and whether Ford is truly committed to an electric future.

Green buffet

Ford’s new fuel-efficient fleet isn’t simply centered on electrics, which becomes evident once you glance at Ford’s lineup of smaller EcoBoost engines, gas hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and fully electric cars. Take, for example, Ford’s new Fusion, unveiled at the 2012 Detroit Auto Show. It will come in a 47 MPG hybrid model, or a 100+ MPGe plug-in hybrid model. In addition, Ford plans on offering its new 2012 Focus in both EcoBoost and all-electric platforms.

2013-Ford-Fusion

Fuel economy across the rest of the line also remains a top priority. According to Ford, over 90 percent of Ford models will feature increased fuel economy by next year.

Despite the head start of competitors, Ford claims many of its offerings stack up favorably. For example, Ford’s new C-Max Energi will be the company’s first plug-in hybrid electric vehicle to hit the market when it rolls out later this year, and  is said to post a better overall range than the Chevy Volt. (It’s important to keep in mind however, that many of the numbers claimed by Ford can and will vary depending on driving habits. So these figures really need to be taken with a grain of salt.)

Turning a new Leaf

MyFord-MobileWhile Ford might be taking shots at GM and its Chevy Volt, it also has another one of the company’s competitors, Nissan and its widely successful Leaf, in its crosshairs. But with a base price of $35,200, the Leaf costs $4,000 less than a Focus Electric, which starts at $39,200. Ford will need to make the case for the Focus’ superiority to overcome the price gap.

Machesney believes the selling point will center around comforts and a more refined experience. “I think that what you’ll find with the Ford is that it will have a lot more features and technology,” she said. “Whether it’s MyFord Touch with a touchscreen and a lot more technology available at your fingertips, or the MyFord Mobile app, Ford is going to offer a lot more comprehensive technology.”

There is no denying the utility and appeal of  increased integration — especially when MyFord Touch and MyFord Mobile app are welcome and worthy additions to the Focus Electric’s long list of impressive features. In fact, we are all for smartphone integration and adding more useful technology to make the driving experience more enjoyable. But it seems Ford is missing the point. 

While the Focus is an exceptionally designed car from the inside and out, we can’t help but wonder why Ford couldn’t debut it at a more aggressive price point. It’s understandable, given the research and development costs for new electric vehicles, that consumers are more than likely going to have to bear the financial brunt of this next step in automotive evolution (even with government tax credits and incentives). But has Ford missed an opportunity to steal some of the market the Leaf enjoys by not reducing the already prohibitive price associated with purchasing an electric vehicle, and entering with a lower (or at least comparable) price?

Nissan-Leaf

At the same time,we can’t deny Ford’s earnestness in wanting success for its Focus Electric. We genuinely believe Ford is looking to its Focus, along with some of its other electrified cars like the Fusion Energi, as the vanguard of its long-term automotive strategy. But instead of touting its eco-boost models, hybrids, hybrid plug-ins, we wonder if Ford’s resources would have been better spent on refining the technology and manufacturing process the Focus Electric has undergone, in order to bring it to market at a much more attractive price point for consumers.

Driving alone down electric avenue 

Not everyone is jumping  on the electric-car bandwagon right away. In a recent survey, accounting firm Ernst & Young asked 4,000 drivers in the US, China, Japan and Europe to share their sentiments on vehicle electrification and share the factors that may encourage or discourage them to purchase an electrified car. Sixty percent of respondents said they weren’t likely to buy an electrified vehicle until it is well established in the market, highlighting the importance of successful launches among the potential early adopters. Concerns over vehicle price, adequate charging infrastructure, and battery range also ranked highly.

Nevada_Highway_374

It’s clear that many consumers are still skeptical, a sentiment Machesny said Ford understands and hopes to combat with education. “What I find with electrified vehicles is people just don’t understand what it is,” she said. “Education is the first step we need to do, in terms of letting people know what it is, how it works, what it can do. It just appears daunting to a lot of people because they don’t entirely understand how it can benefit them and work for them.”

To electricity and beyond

While educating the consumer base is important, especially when trying to allay fear and skepticism over this new automotive technology, Machesny also pointed out that infrastructure plays a key role. More specifically, that means ensuring consumers have access to charging stations, something which Machesny says Ford is committed to doing. What that infrastructure looks like remains to be seen.

As of now, Ford has teamed up with consumer electronics chain Best Buy as an installer for 240-volt home charging stations, which can charge cars more rapidly than a standard 120-volt wall outlet. Ford has also teamed up with California-based SunPower Corp to offer customers a $10,000 (after federal tax credits) rooftop solar system that will allow Focus Electric owners to “Drive Green for Life” by providing customers with enough clean, renewable energy to offset the electricity used to charge the vehicle.

FocusElectric-Charging

There is no denying that electrified cars are here to stay. The initial introduction of electric vehicles may be marred with skepticism, controversy, and inherent barriers such as infrastructure and high-cost, but Machesny isn’t fazed, “There is a lot of hypothesis on where the industry will go, but when you talk about technology like hydrogen cells there is a lot of factors that need to be weighed to even make that feasible. I think electrified vehicles are going to be around for quite some time.”

The customer is always right

Of course, the deciding factor will inevitably come down to consumers, where Ford hopes its “power of choice” will prevent it from being left out in the cold, no matter what technology prevails. The American auto market can be a tough nut to crack, but Ford is hoping with its fleet of new electrified and fuel-efficient cars it will have something for everyone.

In the end, the Focus Electric, C-Max Energi and Fusion Hybrid do offer consumers choices, but little clarity about what the future of clean driving will look like, or which would be the best choice to take there. The opportunity for confusion arises with the strategy and commitment (or lack thereof) that Ford has shown when it comes to electrified vehicles as a whole. Being late to the game didn’t help, either. While Toyota, Honda, and Nissan were busy paving the way for hybrid and electric cars, Ford was watching on the sidelines. Perhaps Ford is beginning to turn that around now, but if  it neglects to throw its weight behind its electrified vehicles, it may find itself lagging behind, yet again, the likes of Toyota and Nissan. For an automotive pioneer like Ford, with such a rich history of automotive leadership, to lag behind the competition is something it simply can’t afford to do.