Why Ford needs to get its electric plan out of neutral and into drive

ford electric fl focus ev carBack in May, I had the pleasure of driving the Ford Focus Electric around the city of Portland, Oregon. It was a fun, albeit brief, drive that left me surprisingly impressed by Ford’s first all-electric vehicle. Not only did it tout some truly impressive efficiency numbers (105 MPGe and an official range of 76 miles on a single charge), but it also managed to handle well and accelerate with a vigor not found in your standard gasoline-engine car.

But all is not well in EV land. Despite its early success with the Focus EV, Ford still refuses to throw sufficient resources behind its electric vehicles, and will continue to lag behind the competition until it does.

Unlike electric competitors like Mitsubishi and Nissan, Ford has refused to build a dedicated EV platform. Instead, Ford has made it clear it wishes to tackle this segment with a multi-faceted approach, offering different levels of entry to suit the needs of consumers.

For instance, on top of eco-boosted models — which feature smaller, more efficient, turbocharged engines — Ford will also introduce hybrid versions of many of its upcoming vehicles. This year alone marks the arrival of the Focus EV and the C-Max Energi, while the 2013 Ford Fusion Energi will begin cropping up in dealerships early next year.

Choices are good, but so is clear-cut game plan. And Ford doesn’t have a real one when it comes to electrics.

Despite the growing green hue emanating from Ford’s PR department, it’s largely business as usual behind the scenes. For instance, the company recently announced it was opening a new “Electrification Center of Excellence” down the street from its Dearborn, Michigan headquarters. But as with the Focus EV, this “new” center is more of a refresh than an original creation. It’s housed in Ford’s old 285,000-square foot research and development lab, previously known as the Advanced Engineering Center.

Okay, so a little reshuffling is fine, smart even. But how much money will Ford actually dedicate to EVs? It has hired some 60 engineers to help populate its refocused facility, bringing the total tally of its investment to $135 million. At first glance this seems like a fair chunk of change, but considering that General Motors has spent almost $750 million on the Chevrolet Volt, it still seems Ford is content with dipping its toes in the pool, rather than just jumping in.

Using existing platforms might make sense from an accounting perspective. After all — researching, designing, and developing an entirely new vehicle from scratch is always going to cost a pretty penny. However, there are some drawbacks to merely repurposing existing vehicles with EV components.

Slapping an electric drivetrain might seem like a good idea, but unless a car is optimized with the right aerodynamics, structure, weight, and other design factors, you’ve already sacrificed some efficiency right off the bat. Electric vehicles also have to accommodate a rather large and heavy battery, so it’s important for the initial design layout to take that into account. The Ford Focus, in all its incognito EV glory, hasn’t really been optimized for any of these factors. Cars like the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi iMev might look quirky, but they look that way for a reason, not to simply stand out at a red light or make some lofty political statement. It’s the same reason why you wouldn’t slap a Ferrari engine inside a Camry; you’ll lose a vast amount of what makes a car like that so special.

From a cost perspective, Ford might be saving money up front, but it will end up spending more money in the long term, since small quantity conversions always cost more than a large-volume production line. Using the same platform as the standard Focus gives Ford a cheap start with the Focus EV, but the battery cost piles on an excruciating $12,000 to $15,000 per car – a cost that would be lower in greater volume.

People are often quick to criticize companies like Nissan, Tesla, and even Fisker, but the fact that these automakers are out there trying to innovate shouldn’t be met with derision. Of course these companies could be doing more to lessen the criticism; Fisker has more problems than Jay-Z, Nissan isn’t hitting its sales target, and Tesla can’t seem build the Model S fast enough.

Don’t think Ford is the only company skirting around the EV question. Equal scorn belongs at the feet of Honda, which has built an excellent all-electric vehicle in the Fit EV, but like Ford, refused to commit to a true EV platform. Automakers like Mazda, Volkswagen, Subaru, and even Toyota aren’t doing enough nurture the EV market either. Other than Nissan and Mitsubishi, no other major automaker has a dedicated, high-volume pure EV (remember the Volt has an engine) out now or coming soon.

Ford’s strategy is an admirable one, and it’s clear the goal is to elevate its fuel-efficiency cache to traditional mileage kings such as Honda, Toyota, and the like. For that, we have nothing but praise. But to stay up to speed with electrification, Ford could do more, including developing a true all-electric vehicle platform and diverting more resources overall to its future EV projects. The goal here is to innovate, not stagnate. The company has the resources and ability to operate on the cutting edge, but right now it just seems content with keeping pace.