Autos News

Ford mass plug-ins at least 5 years away

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Ford Motor Co F.N is at least five years away from manufacturing big numbers of plug-in electric vehicles for the mass market, an executive said on Tuesday.

“We’re clearly at least five years away from starting what I would call the ramp from very small volumes to substantial volumes,” Nancy Gioia, Ford’s director of sustainable mobility technologies and hybrid vehicle programs, said in an interview.

“This is really a system that has to come together and it’s not just, ‘Throw some product out there.”’

Gioia declined to say whether a Ford mass market plug-in would be a small or large vehicle.

The timeline echoes comments by Ford Chief Executive Alan Mulally, who said a year ago the company would sell plug-ins in five to 10 years.

Unlike gasoline-electric models such as Toyota Motor Corp's 7203.T Prius, which run on a system that twins battery power and a combustion engine, plug-ins will be powered entirely by an electric motor and have a battery that can be charged through an ordinary power socket.

Ford is moving more slowly with its plug-in strategy than rival General Motors Corp GM.N, which plans to launch its heavily-touted Chevrolet Volt plug-in electric car in 2010.

Increased interest in electric cars comes as U.S. auto manufacturers reel financially from sinking sales of gas- guzzling sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks, with domestic gasoline prices topping $4 a gallon in some areas.

Separately on Tuesday, Ford’s president of the Americas, Mark Fields said auto sales remained weak in July and reflect a trend in shifting demand toward smaller vehicles.

But according to Gioia, battery technology for electric cars that can last for 10 years and 150,000 miles in extreme temperatures is still being developed.

“If you build your plug-in hybrid and the battery only lasts five years, how much is your vehicle worth? Nothing,” Gioia said. “The battery replacement costs will exceed the residual value of the vehicle. We don’t think that’s an acceptable pathway forward.”

Ford is currently testing 20 plug-in versions of its Escape SUVs as part of an alliance with Edison International EIX.N utility Southern California Edison.

Gioia said those vehicles will be rotated around to other utilities thanks to a partnership with the Electric Power Research Institute, which represents utilities that generate more than 90 percent of the power in the United States.

The test is expected to run for about 3 years, Gioia added.

GM announced its own partnership with EPRI on Tuesday.

Reporting by Nichola Groom; editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Andre Grenon