Ford battery-electric van due in 2010

DETROIT (Reuters) - Ford F.N plans to sell a battery electric powered Transit Connect light work van in North America next year, the first step in electrification plans announced last month, the automaker said on Monday.

Ford <F.N> plans to sell a battery electric powered Transit Connect light work van in North America next year, the first step in electrification plans announced last month, the automaker said on Monday. This January 2009 file photo shows the grill of a Ford vehicle. REUTERS/Mark Blinch (UNITED STATES)

Ford is collaborating with Smith Electric Vehicles, a unit of the Tanfield Group TAN.L on the battery-electric Transit Connect, the automaker said.

Ford, which posted a record $14.6 billion (9.8 billion pounds) annual net loss in 2008, also plans to introduce a battery electric small car in North America in 2011 and plug-in hybrid vehicles in 2012.

Smith has been converting vehicles to battery electric power for nearly 90 years and already offers a battery electric version of Ford’s Transit medium commercial vehicle to fleet customers in Britain and some European markets, Ford said.

The battery electric version of the Transit Connect is expected to have a range of up to 100 miles. Ford is bringing a gasoline-powered Transit Connect built in Turkey to the U.S. this summer targeted specifically at small business owners.

Ford product development chief Derrick Kuzak said in a statement that the battery electric Transit Connect “represents the next logical step in our pursuit of even greater fuel economy and sustainability.”

Ford’s drive into battery-electric, plug-ins and next generation hybrid vehicles puts the automaker squarely into the growing group of automakers that have responded to calls for reduced emissions and improved fuel economy.

Environmental advocates see pure electric and “plug-in” -- or rechargeable -- hybrids as the most promising way to cut greenhouse gas emissions and oil consumption.

Sales of hybrid vehicles have fallen off sharply in North America since gas prices dropped from historical average highs above $4 per gallon in mid 2008 and the economy faltered.

However, Ford expects U.S. drivers to pay more for energy over the long term, justifying the capital investments at a time when Ford and U.S.-based rivals General Motors Corp GM.N and Chrysler are struggling to complete turnarounds.

Ford also believes the U.S. government will need to play a role in accelerating the switch-over to electric vehicles.

GM and Chrysler, 80 percent owned by Cerberus Capital Management, have been pledged $17.4 billion of government aid. Ford has said it believes it has enough cash to fund its business plan without a government bailout, barring a significantly deeper downturn in the economy.

GM seized headlines in 2007 by promising to build its all-electric Chevy Volt, which is due out next year. Chrysler, has shown three electric car prototypes and has said it intends to sell one by next year.

Japan's Toyota Motor Corp 7203.T remains far ahead of other automakers with its Prius hybrid as among the top sellers in the U.S. market of any type of vehicle.

Ford was the first U.S. automaker to develop its own hybrid, but had pulled back from visible developments earlier this decade at a time when truck sales remained strong.

The No. 2 U.S.-based automaker, Ford is working with auto parts supplier Magna International MGa.TO to bring the small lithium ion battery-powered car to North America in 2011.

Ford's plug-in hybrid vehicles in 2012 are expected to use a complete battery system supplied by a partnership between Johnson ControlsJCI.N and France's Saft S1A.PA.

Editing by Bernard Orr