I was fortunate to get one-on-one chats with two top GM technology leaders (John Lauckner and Larry Nitz) at this year's Detroit North American International Auto Show, but no other automaker offered that opportunity. However, while I was resting and enjoying lunch in Ford's media lounge, in walked Ford's newly-promoted chief operating officer (and likely successor to CEO Alan Mulally) Mark Fields.
Fields told us a year ago that Ford's powertrain strategy is to continue downsizing engines and using EcoBoost (turbocharging and direct fuel injection), and added that vehicle electrification will play a major role in meeting federal corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) requirements that mandate mpg boosts of more than four percent per year through 2025. "By the end of this decade," he said, "we'll see from 10 to 25 percent of our sales being electrified – conventional hybrids, plug-in hybrids and battery electrics."
But how will Ford keep costs down to get their sales volumes up? "Our approach is electrifying platforms, as opposed to single vehicles," he said, "which has a lot of engineering efficiencies. And our manufacturing strategy will allow us to flex. For example, our Wayne [MI] Plant will produce the regular gas-powered Focus, the electric Focus and the C-Max hybrid."
This year, I hit him again with the big CAFE question first.
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MF: The real positive is that we have a single national standard vs. individual states making their own standards. You can imagine the cost that would be involved with that.
Our approach is, "The power of choice" [among] EcoBoost engines, plug-in hybrids, conventional hybrids and battery-electric vehicles. We'll continue to evaluate customer demand in conjunction with the government agencies, and there's a mid-term review in 2017. Electrified vehicles will be a big part of meeting those standards, but we have to make sure there is consumer demand to help us do that.
ABG: You also have a California ZEV mandate, and other states will follow.
MF: It's a process of our overall support of higher fuel economy, and also a process where we will have continual dialogue with the relevant government agencies to make sure that it's right for consumers and affordable for both consumers and the industry.
ABG: Do you believe those agencies will give the subject a fair hearing?
MF: I believe so because, as we went through the discussions to get to the one national standard, they were very good discussions. The federal government has a vested interest in making sure that the automobile industry – one of the key industries in leading economic recovery and driving the economy on an ongoing basis – is successful, to provide not only direct jobs but also the indirect jobs that are associated with it. Every study says there are nine or 10 jobs supported by every auto industry job.
"The federal government has a vested interest in making sure that the automobile industry is successful."
ABG: That understanding may exist at working levels, but what about the politicians from whom they get their orders?
MF: That's why it's important for us to make sure that we have identified the problem. That's what we did to get to the one national standard, and that's what we'll have to do when we get to that mid-term review.
ABG: You seem confident that Ford will be capable of meeting both federal CAFE and California ZEV mandates, but can you do it while maintaining affordability and desirability?
MF: Do not underestimate the ingenuity of engineers. Think about the fuel economy that we get from our F-150s, for example, along with their towing and cargo hauling capabilities. If I had told you five years ago that we'll be able to get 25 miles per gallon on the highway from an F-150 pickup and get even more payload that we were getting then, you probably would have said, "Where is that bar where you been drinking? I want some of that too."
"Do not underestimate the ingenuity of engineers."
ABG: But that's today. It's a long way from here to there.
MF: Yes, but we have time. We don't have to do it overnight, and we have a plan. I do think the cost thing is an open question, and a lot of it depends on consumer demand and what costs consumers are willing to pay. Those are things we have to continue working on while also making sure that were having the right discussions with the various government entities to make sure that we can deliver that affordably to the consumer, and to the business.
I also chatted last year with Sherif Marakby, Ford's director of vehicle electrification, and asked him whether Ford was considering a Chevy Volt-type extended-range EV, or "mild" hybrids like GM's eAssist? He responded that they had built and tested prototypes of each and didn't find their benefits worth their costs. "We believe our strategy of using our power-split architecture in plug-ins is a better value for the customer, and better efficiency, and we're proving that with the numbers.
"We have a Fusion plug-in with better efficiency than the smaller Volt, so we have no plans to do that kind of system. And we believe our EcoBoost technology provides the same benefit as eAssist at lower cost, as proven by our 37-mpg EcoBoost versus any eAssist product. We believe the full hybrid is the right solution, and we are best-in-class in full hybrids."
"We believe the full hybrid is the right solution."
Maybe so, but Ford's hybrid fuel economy is being questioned because virtually no one can achieve their EPA-rated 47-miles-per-gallon efficiency in real-world driving. Nor, to be fair, can many (if any) full hybrids today. I just drove an Acura ILX (an upscale Honda Civic) Hybrid on a 500-mile trip and averaged 33.2 mpg. Its official ratings are 39 mpg city, 38 highway and 38 combined.
Regarding the mild-hybrid approach – criticized by some as questionable value for money – GM is planning to offer it on increasing numbers of vehicles. By comparison, Chevy's mid-size eAssist Malibu's EPA economy is 25 mpg city, 37 highway vs. Ford's (much more powerful and expensive) 2.0L EcoBoost Fusion's 22/33, and it also compares well to Honda's similarly-priced four-cylinder Accord (26/35) and Nissan's Altima (27/38).
I'm not advocating anyone's technology, since virtually all automakers are working hard and doing a great job of improving their vehicles' efficiency while containing cost, and each is pursuing its own individual path to 54.5-mpg CAFE. But I am suggesting that potential buyers should do their research, test-drive and compare their leading candidates and decide which offers the best value for their wants and needs.