Ford's Alan Mulally on the Plug-In Electric Car

Alan Mulally, Ford President and CEO, with the 2013 Ford Fusion at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Jan. 9. Carlos Osorio / AP

For more than three years, President Obama has been singing the praises of electric cars. He’s repeatedly called for 1 million plug-in and hybrid vehicles on the road by 2015. He’s ignored the skeptics who said it was impossible.

But maybe he’ll listen to Alan Mulally.

“The infrastructure is just not there yet,” the Ford chief executive officer told Newsweek recently—a surprisingly blunt assessment given that Ford unveiled its own plug-in, the Ford Focus Electric, just in advance of this month’s Detroit Auto Show. “It’s a very tough economic case ... These are very expensive vehicles because the batteries and electronics are very expensive.”

The strikes against Obama’s vehicular pet are many: the weight of the battery, the cost of the battery, the minimum three to four hours it takes to charge the battery, the cost of the car (plug-ins can cost twice as much as a com-parable gas-powered model), the extremely limited range (80 to 100 miles). Plus, of course, the little matter of a federal safety investigation into batteries that burst into flames during a crash test for General Motors’ plug-in, the Chevrolet Volt. Even before the investigation, plug-in sales were disappointing, with the Volt falling short of the 10,000 it expected to sell.

Mulally is careful not to directly contradict Obama’s goal of 1 million (“the customers are going to decide that”). But when you spend time with him, it’s hard not to think that Obama is looking a lot like the last guy to buy an eight-track tape player, championing exactly the wrong technology at the wrong time. Ford itself expects electric buyers to choose hybrids that run on gasoline as well as electric power (though sales of hybrids have been weak, too). Indeed, last week at the auto show, many carmakers—in part anticipating future government regulations demanding higher energy standards—were bringing out hybrid options of one sort or another. “The ones that make the most economic sense are the hybrids, like the Escape and Fusion hybrid,” he says, that “have no limitation on range. It isn’t going to get in the way of your lifestyle—you know, whether you can charge it or not.”

Ford expects to produce just 100,000 vehicles with some electric power by 2013, accounting for less than 5 percent of total sales—and of those, the vast majority will be hybrids, not all-electric plug-ins. The auto-maker expects that as little as 10 percent of its fleet will be electrified, again primarily hybrids, by 2020.

Given all that, one might wonder why Ford has been talking up the Focus Electric for almost a year. Mulally, an engineer by training, with the enthusiastic demeanor of a Midwestern salesman, even went on the Late Show With David Letterman to promote it. The future, Mulally explains, may not rest with any of the current technologies: “It might not even be a lithium-ion chemistry; it could be a different chemistry.” While some auto-makers are gambling on a small handful, he’d rather see Ford bet on every power category, from 100 percent gasoline to 100 percent electric and everything in between.

All-electric, Mulally says diplomatically, “is a longer-term journey.”

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