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Ford’s Director of Vehicle Electrification talks plugin politics and the EV future

Looking for a challenge? Here’s one: Take a giant established automaker – say, Ford – and map out a future that transitions the company from over 100 years of fossil-fuel dependence and moves it to full electrification.

And… go.

While hybrid and electric vehicles are quickly gaining in popularity, concerns about range, recharging times, standardizations, and energy politics still have the power to take the spark out of the EV industry’s step.

It would appear that not even Big Oil can put the electric toothpaste back in the tube at this point.

Digital Trends recently talked with Mike Tinskey, Ford’s Director of Vehicle Electrification and Infrastructure, while we drove around green-car crazy Portland, Oregon, in one of Ford’s big new Fusion Energi plug-in hybrids. The full-size sedan was in town during an alt-powered car exhibit on Portland State University’s Electric Avenue. Ford is touring it and a few other of its hybrid and electric cars around the nation. While the Fusion Energi is a hybrid, it can also go 21 miles on electricity alone. It is available now nationwide.

Like his tongue-twisting title suggests, Tinskey is tasked with leading Ford through the murky waters of change taking place as the nation and world slowly emerges from the ooze of an expensive and volatile fossil fuel-based mobility infrastructure to an electrified system. Is he up to the job? Tinskey is no corporate desk jockey. An electrical engineer with several patents to his name as well as being an instructor/researcher for driving in low-traction environments (think: snow), he has a clear understanding of the many challenges – and opportunities – that lay ahead for drivers and for Ford.

Once the sole province of ultra-greenies and garage tinkerers, plug-in cars (Tinskey calls them “electrified vehicles”) like Ford’s Energi models, Nissan’s Leaf, Toyota’s plug-in Prius and the headline-grabbing Tesla Model S are the new tools of choice for more and more drivers, and execs like Tinskey are beginning to show that they can see over the fast-approaching electrified horizon.

One thing is certain: We are witnessing the birth of a massive revolution in personal mobility, or more simply, the Electric Car Revolution. Guys like Tinskey are helping lead the way.

“MPGe” means what again?

Tinskey describs the Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid as a “no-compromise” type of electric vehicle with a combined range of over 600 miles on a single tank of gas and battery power. Tinskey says the car gets “108 miles per gallon equivalent” (or “MPGe”) and that’s where our conversation really starts in regards to the world of electric driving. What exactly is “MPGe” and how is it calculated? 

“You’re using both electricity and gasoline. So what we could do is ‘it gets over 40mpg on gasoline and then gets so many miles fer kilowatt hour of electricity.’ But that would be very confusing to have two metrics, right, because you’re driving on two different fuels,” Tinskey explains. “So what we do is take that miles-per-kilowatt-hour and translate it into the equivalent amount of energy that’s in gasoline and then add the two. So it gives you a direct estimate for comparing this vehicle to a conventional vehicle.” We hope that helps. The MPGe figure is an industry standard and is also used by the government, Tinskey says.

Read more about MPGe here.

The Tesla question

While Ford has their Fusion all-electric car, it hasn’t made quite the splash that the Tesla Model S has in the EV world – and the auto world in particular. So has Tesla’s success raised the bar for Ford? “This whole industry is fascinating because it’s so fluid,” Tinskey remarks, saying he felt the market for all-electric vehicles would continue to grow. “I think the heart of your question is: in what form? The Tesla approach is a different price point, it’s a very different vehicle, we offer our vehicles in what we like to say is the ‘power of choice.'” Tinskey says Ford offers five cars with a range of electrification and while he did not mention Tesla directly in that comparison, it seems clear he feels Ford’s more affordable and varied approach is an alternative to the Tesla’s premium price. 

A (more) electrified future

Tinsley is confident in the future of EVs. He notes that since Ford released their first hybrid vehicle, the Escape Hybrid, in 2004, it took until late in 2011 for hybrids to make up just two percent of volume car sales. One year later, in 2012, it was at four percent. “We essentially doubled market share in 12 months.” Tinskey says. “Our view is that hybrids are now starting to become mainstream. Plug-in hybrids are likely right behind it, and that the plug-in hybrids are likely to become more BEV [Battery Electric Vehicles]-like over time, meaning larger batteries, longer range on all-electric and, most likely, engines getting smaller in displacement as we’ve seen over the past couple of generations.”


“What we’ve seen is that people are becoming more accepting of driving on electricity.” And that’s whether it comes from a wall socket or is generated within the car, such as a hybrid.

Tinskey says Ford recognizes electric vehicles are essential for hitting mandated CO2 targets. “We’ve got our internal objectives and they’re all high-growth relative to electrification [of cars],” he says.

Charging up for the long haul

Currently, filling up your electric car with hard-working electrons is a simple task – at least in Oregon and some other ecar-friendly states. Just plug it in at night in your garage using a regular outlet (the painfully slow method), install a 220/240 volt charger (much faster) or pull up to one of the many public chargers popping up and recharge for a small fee – or for free – courtesy of taxpayers or local EV-supporting businesses. Grab lunch, maybe a movie, and your electric car is full of go-power when you return.

But what about a trip out of town, or even cross-country?

Filling up your electric car with hard-working electrons is a simple task – at least in Oregon and some other ecar-loving states.

On the near horizon, Tinskey says ultra-fast chargers that can get you back on the road in 20 minutes or less are the current “state of the art” – but are not out for public use just yet. However, Tesla founder Elon Musk recently announced his company will be installing hundreds of “Superchargers” across the United States this year, allowing Tesla owners to drive cross-country on electricity and on Tesla’s dime no less. Superchargers can refuel a Model S to the 80 percent mark in about half an hour, but other brands of cars cannot use them. That’s something of a problem.

Tinskey thinks the politics of charging will play out similarly to the quest for standardization of the plugs and receptacles used by electric cars: There may be some differences to start, but eventually, operation of the charging infrastructure will standardize and streamline much like the gasoline-based fueling infrastructure played out. But first, Tinskey says there will be a hybrid-powered transition period.

“Although we do have a few differences [in charging standards] in the U.S. between a couple of manufacturers, we believe that everyone is going to migrate to [one] standard long-term,” Tinskey explains, adding that taking a long trip in a fully electric vehicle is not the best use of that kind of car – just yet. “We think that, instead of trying to do a cross-country trip in a BEV, let the infrastructure develop, let the technology develop, and in the interim, the plug-in hybrids make a really good solution for most customers.” Especially those looking to cover some serious ground. “They are going to probably want to take their cars farther and farther, and I’m certainly one of those people, and I think there are a lot of those people out there.”

But issues still remain regarding who owns the power being used to charge cars, what it will cost, how it will be billed, what fees and licensing will look like, and so on.

The common sense answer, hopefully, is that market forces are strong enough that the major players – car companies, electrical companies, charging station owners, and who knows who else – will be able to work out their differences and you will be able to quickly charge up anywhere. But Brett Hauser with GreenLots, a provider of back-end operation and payment systems for charging up electric vehicles, provided a warning when he recently told Digital Trends that we’ve seen this type of situation descend into corporate warfare before: Beta vs. VHS. PC vs Mac. HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray. Sometimes, corporate determination to achieve victory overcomes all common sense in the marketplace, and consumers have to pick and choose who they hope will win, with large numbers ending up on the losing team at some point. But Tinskey says current agreements may head off that kind of battle.

“I think the answer is essentially going to be that we, as Ford, have worked with about seven others, so eight automotive OEMs, so we’ve all agreed on the fast charging standard,” Tinskey says. “And that is what we hope will become the standard of the future. It’s called the DC Combo” which he says uses the current standard fast charging connector but adds two more contact points for even faster charging while retaining backward compatibility. Tinskey says the system is spreading through Europe at this time with plans for a U.S. rollout soon. “Our hope is that it will become the standard,” Tinskey explains.

As for figuring out the issues with the cost of recharging, billing, power sources and so forth, Tinskey said open-standards back-end operational and billing systems for charging up cars like those offered by GreenLots are more along the lines of cell phone providers, where you can take your phone and number to whoever is offering the best service deal.

Tinskey says the system offered by GreenLots will hopefully be the choice electricity providers and carmakers adopt, preventing a mess of competing systems. “That’s really catching on in Europe and we’re hopeful that it catches on in the States as well,” he says. Will there be contracts for electricity like there are for cell phones? Who knows at this point. It’s early in the game and how it will play out – cell phone mobility model, fee-stacking ATM model, or the no-hassle gas station model – remains to be seen.

Smooth and silent

Anyone reading our past posts knows how I have praised the unique qualities of the electric driving experience, this despite decades of pursuing high-speed hijinks on often loud and overpowered gas-powered contraptions. But count me as a high-current convert – and Tinskey says I’m not alone. 

“Our view is that hybrids are now starting to become mainstream. Plug-in hybrids are likely right behind it…”

“When somebody drives electric, they’re likely going to stay electric and never go back,” he says, noting the many benefits drivers discover in electric vehicles including the smooth and quiet ride quality, quick acceleration, the greatly reduced cost of electricity versus gasoline, lower maintenance and more.

But for now, Tinskey says hybrids will likely be the car that gets people where they want to go without having to worry about recharging and range issues. “Basically, you’re driving on all-electric [mode] a vehicle that has no range limitations,” Tinskey says of the roomy Fusion Energi sedan as we curl around the hills above Portland. “From a perspective of creature comforts, features, fuel economy, you’ve got it all,” he says. He said the Fusion even uses active in-car noise suppression using the car’s audio system. In my brief time behind the wheel during the interview, we drove mostly on electricity – and listening to the audio of the interview, it’s difficult to tell we’re in a car and not a sound-absorbing studio.

Driving toward a connected future

No high-tech car would be complete without its own smartphone app, of course, and Ford calls its bit “MyFordMobile,” available for both iOS and Android. Tinskey points out that all their Ford plug-in cars have an “embedded modem” for connecting to the Internet. The app allows drivers to find the car in a crowded lot, lock the doors, control charging and prep the interior on a hot or cold day, all remotely. The app can also be set to only charge the car when electricity rates are lowest.

When it comes to autonomous driving, Tinskey says “as an engineer, we all hope its going to come. As a realist, I recognize the challenges of all the exceptions and decisions we make as humans, and how can you make [the cars] 100 percent reliable is always the challenge.” Tinskey adds that he thinks the driver “will always be part of the system, it’s just how many of the aids that allow the driver to to be helped.” 


Tinskey rejects the notion that the new assistance technologies found in cars now are making people less-skilled drivers. He points out the effectiveness in backup detection systems make drivers aware of unseen obstacles – including children. “I think many of those types of features are needed and welcomed,” he adds.

Additionally, Tinskey is looking forward to near-term expansion of vehicle electrification and what it could mean in the broader context of the American electrical power system as a whole. “When you start thinking about what this could to help the greater U.S. grid, and what [electric cars] can do when we hit critical mass, when there’s enough vehicles in a certain location… you start enabling a whole new amount of environmental impacts, that you can actually reduce CO2 because you got the ability to have a large amount of storage [in the cars’ batteries]. You can help with brownouts, power shortages, you can even power your home. So there’s a lot of things, I think, when you get to this common fuel called ‘electricity,’ that we’re looking forward to doing.”

If people drive electric and don’t buy gas…

While hybrid and electric cars are still a small but growing part of the overall vehicle market, the petrol economy as a whole hasn’t changed. But what will happen to the petrol industry when EV’s share of the car market is 50 percent – or more? Conspiracy theorists of the Suppressed 100mpg Carburetor Club may say that oil companies will try to kill electric cars, but judging from the success of the Model S, the Volt, Leaf, and others, it would appear that not even Big Oil can put the electric toothpaste back in the tube at this point. Will the electric car kill the oil industry? Tinskey says that looking at gas prices over even just 10 year’s time or more “the volatility of petroleum has been huge. In fact… as early as 2008 or 2009, we saw gas prices go to $1.60 a gallon. Now we’re closer to $4 a gallon. And then if you compare that to our electricity prices, essentially they’ve been [matching] inflation for the past 40 or 50 years. Not only is it cheaper to drive electric, it’s more predictable in terms of its future price. There’s some value there.”

Tisnkey said telematics data collected from their electrified vehicles indicates owners are driving 60 percent of their miles on electricity. Other stories DT has covered show that owners of the Chevy Volt are often going months and thousands of miles without getting gas due to changes in their driving habits.

Tinskey admits that their in-car driving coaches, which in Ford vehicles includes a somewhat fanciful digital display of “efficiency leaves” that grow with good habits and fall away when you stomp on the gas, get some chuckles when drivers first see them. But, he says the response from drivers to Ford suggests the feedback tools have had the effect of “gamification,” where drivers take pushing those new efficiency habits to the limit in order to avoid buying gas. Tinskey said Ford got involved with the hypermiling community, where drivers use myriad tricks and tactics to stretch the gas mileage of normal cars, and learned from them. The brake coach and acceleration coaching systems in the Ford cars gleaned information from that community.

He also said the electricity for the cars is also generally locally generated, whether it’s from coal plants, wind power, hydropower, nuclear or solar power. “It has the other impact that you are… potentially bringing money back to the local economy because your fuel for your driving is now produced locally. And that’s billions [of dollars], right? No one has really tried to quantify what the impact there is but my sense is that’s going to continue to grow,” he says.

Drive electric, 2023

What does Tinskey see Ford moving to in the near future for drivers? “We’re planning for an evolution but hoping for a battery breakthrough. So I think if you look at the 10-year horizon, our internal plans are we have some new features, we’ve got some improved batteries, some improvements in engine technology, aerodynamics, weight, low cost. Telematics is clearly an area we’re improving. But I’m most excited about, if there’s a breakthrough that happens particularly on the storage side of things, we’re likely going to have a much faster adoption rate.” But even without a breakthrough, Tinskey says the adoption rate of electric and hybrid cars will likely continue to rise.

A Mustang hybrid? Never say never….

While hybrids began as the province of economically and environmentally minded drivers rather than the speed demon crowd, cars like the Porsche 918 hybrid, the Ferrari La Ferraria hybrid, and the McLaren P1 hybrid supercar have changed the mindset to now include boosting outright performance, not just gas mileage. After all, electric motors make big torque from a standstill and run at efficiency levels far above gas engines. They truly can be built for speed. Is Ford looking to capitalize on that aspect of hybrid power with a performance car? Tinskey says “electric motors can easily spin the wheels at any point if we chose to do it that way.”

“Our approach is a little different,” he explains. “We want to use electrification to offer a no-compromise vehicle and get [customers] the green impact. That’s our current approach. It seems to be resonating very well. The product (the Fusion Energi) is a good example, you are given plenty of performance opportunities.”

But we all know how it goes. Gas or electricity, the race is always on. “This industry is very interesting because it’s such a fluid space,” Tinskey said. “We can’t predict what’s going to happen next … We just can’t say everything.”

Stay tuned.

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