Ford, So Cal Ed to test plug-in hybrids

ROSEMEAD, California (Reuters) - Ford Motor Co. on Monday announced a partnership with utility Southern California Edison to test a fleet of rechargeable electric vehicles and said it expected to sell such plug-in hybrids within the next decade if battery technology keeps pace.

“Within five to 10 years we will start to see this technology in our hands,” Ford Chief Executive Alan Mulally said at the event.

When asked if that meant plug-in hybrids would be available on showroom floors, Mulally said yes.

He declined to give a more precise production target, saying: “I can’t go further than that. We will know a lot more in the next few years.”

The remarks were the first time the No. 2 U.S. automaker has offered a timeline for producing plug-in hybrid vehicles, which many environmental advocates see as the best available technology to reduce gas consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

The Ford CEO and John Bryson, chief executive of Edison International, unveiled plans for an alliance to test plug-in hybrids vehicles at Edison International’s headquarters in suburban Los Angeles on Monday.

Under the partnership, researchers from Southern California Edison and Ford will work together in “real world” testing of up to 20 plug-in hybrid vehicles, Ford spokesman John Clinard said.

Environmental advocates, who have targeted Ford in the past, welcomed the tie-up and said it showed the automaker was back in the race for electric car technology with Toyota Motor Corp and General Motors Corp.

Ford said it would provide the utility company with a fleet of 2008 Ford Escape Hybrid sport utility vehicles that would be benchmarked for performance.

The Escape hybrid would then be engineered by Ford in cooperation with a battery company partner yet to be named to make the vehicle capable of being plugged-in.

Mulally cautioned the commercial rollout of the still experimental vehicles depends on advances in battery technology, an assessment shared by other rival automakers.

The No. 2 U.S. automaker, which lost $12.6 billion last year, became the first U.S. car maker to introduce a gasoline- electric hybrid vehicle -- the Escape -- in 2004.

Faced with declining U.S. market share, Ford later backed off ambitious sales targets for hybrids and was criticized by environmental advocates for having lost momentum in the race to develop alternatives to combustion engines.

Environmental advocates, particularly in California, have been pressing automakers to roll out plug-in vehicles capable of running solely on electricity for short distances and recharging at a standard electric outlet.

“Consumers have been waiting a long time for an automaker to offer the next generation of ultra-fuel-efficient, gasoline- optional cars,” said environmental groups Rainforest Action Network and Global Exchange Campaign in response to Ford’s announcement.

Ford will initially work exclusively with Southern California Electric to develop the testing procedures, but did not rule out working with other partners in the future.

GM has already begun development work this year on its own plug-in hybrid car, designed to use little or no gasoline over short distances.

GM showed off a concept version of the Chevrolet Volt in January and has set 2010 as a target for production.

Electric utility Southern California Edison serves about 5 million electricity customers in the Los Angeles region and parts of California’s coast and Central Valley. It is a subsidiary of Edison International.

Southern California Edison has been a vocal advocate for the development of electric vehicles and proposed tax incentives and rebates to speed their development.

Additional reporting by Poornima Gupta in Detroit