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First Person: Storied Automaker Builds Electric Vehicles for the Future

As director of the global electrification program at Ford, Nancy Gioia can explain the advantages EVs offer to consumers, as well as the challenges faced by the utility industry in support of these vehicles. She recently discussed these matters with Area Development's editor.

September 2010
As director of Ford's global electrification program, can you tell us how the introduction of electric vehicles (EVs) changed the shape of the auto industry?
Gioia: Electric vehicles are not a new idea. They've been around since the start of the auto industry more than 100 years ago, but the cost and technology always prevented them from being more widely accepted. What's shaping the auto industry today is technology. Lithium ion battery technology - resulting from the consumer electronics industry - has enabled electric vehicles to extend their ranges beyond 100 miles. And although battery costs remain high, the price has come down. Combine this with the development of an EV infrastructure, government incentives, and a strong interest in reducing our dependency on foreign oil, and you can see how the environment for the re-introduction of the electric vehicle has improved.

What does this mean to traditional OEMs/ suppliers?
Gioia: With the introduction of electric vehicles, automobile manufacturers are working with some new faces when it comes to providing fuel - utility companies. This means working with a whole new supply base and collaborating on a variety of issues including making sure the electrical grid is used efficiently since there will be an increase in demand for electricity.

Will this affect where Ford or other automakers put their assembly plants?
Gioia: The introduction of EVs will have no impact on where Ford will locate its assembly plants. In fact, Ford's strategy to use an existing global brand like the Focus as its first passenger battery electric vehicle means we will have the ability to build both gas and electric-powered vehicles on the same assembly line. This will allow us to easily react to consumer demand for either electric or gas-powered vehicles.

Are the current assembly lines able to handle this new technology?
Gioia: Well we will need to make some changes to the production process to handle tasks like battery pack installation. However, the goal is to make the transition from making a gas-powered Ford Focus to an electric-powered Ford Focus as seamless as possible. Ford is confident we can do this in an affordable and efficient manner that can address consumer demand.

What about labor force needs? Are they different now?
Gioia: Labor forces won't change, but there will need to be additional training done since there will be work with high voltage. Another area that will see a change is engineering. As the EVs develop, there will be more of a need for engineers to help develop battery technology.

You mentioned the electric grid. Can you tell us how Ford is working with utilities to advance the EV program?
Gioia: Ford is working with utilities across the country to help develop the electric vehicle infrastructure and make these automobiles more viable. One area of real concern is the increase in demand electric vehicle charging could create on local electrical grids. Utilities, car companies, and consumers understand managing demand will be important to all parties.

Are there particular initiatives under way to manage this demand?
Gioia: The utility companies are looking at their rate structures and the use of smart meters. In fact, Ford and Microsoft are teaming up to use the Microsoft Hohm energy management application as a platform to help future owners of EVs optimize the way they recharge their vehicles and better manage their homes' energy use. The Hohm program will help EV owners determine when and how to most efficiently and affordably recharge battery electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. This should help utility companies manage the added demands of electric vehicles on the electric grid.

How is the company getting consumers to "buy in"?
Gioia: The goal of Ford's electrification strategy is to deliver electrified vehicles that provide real world value to customers with a wide range of driving behaviors and conditions. These vehicles include hybrids, plug-in hybrids (PHEV), and pure battery electric vehicles (BEV) designed to improve fuel economy and affordably lower CO2 emissions. This means consumers will have a choice in so far as selecting the best electric vehicle to suit their driving habits. This could help eliminate concerns over being stranded if you went too far with your EV and it needed to be charged.

You mentioned government incentives. Can you elaborate on that?
Gioia: Through the ChargePoint America program - sponsored by Coulomb Technologies and funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 - 5,000 homes in nine U.S. cities across the nation will receive free charging stations. The infrastructure will also help make EVs a viable option for consumers.

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