Ford & Future History

Columns From: 1/26/2012 Automotive Design & Production, , Editor-in-Chief from Gardner Business Media, Inc.

History is written not only by the victors, but by who’ve been the most successful.

Henry Ford did not invent the automobile. Not by a long shot. But what he did do was make the automobile accessible to the masses thanks not only to his implementation of production technology (a.k.a., the assembly line), not only to his attention to design for manufacture (i.e., he focused on simplicity of design for effective manufacture, which is encompassed in the phrase “Any color you want as long as it is black), but also on his focus on affordability (which was one consequence of his “five-dollar-a-day pay” program: he knew that if his workers were unable to afford the products they were manufacturing, there were low odds that other people would be able to afford to buy a Ford).

Nowadays the terms “critical mass” and “tipping point” are used to describe having sufficient numbers of something to make a difference larger than the sum of their parts. Without a doubt, Henry Ford created a massive difference that led to things including what you are reading right now. He, in effect, as historian Douglas Brinkley titled a book about the Ford Motor Company, provided “Wheels for the World.” It wasn’t about just some people. It was about many.

When the history of the second century of the auto industry is written, Toyota will get deserved recognition for the hybrid revolution initiated by the Prius, first in Japan in 1997 and then in the U.S. and elsewhere in the year 2000. (Honda actually beat the Prius to the U.S. market with its hybrid Insight in 1999, but history tends to be written about those who are victors, and clearly the word “Prius” has become synonymous with “hybrid” in a way that can only be considered perceptual dominance.) The engineering development of what then seemed to be an oddity has proven to be a viable direction as people and governments around the world look for the ways and means to reduce both emissions and their use of fossil fuels for transportation.

But it is beginning to seem to me that Henry Ford’s company might be the one that is given credit for putting the world on electrically driven wheels. Again, the proliferation of hybrid models by Toyota can’t be under-credited. But what Ford Motor Co. is doing in southeastern Michigan will have not only implications for the area, but for a wide range of consumers the world over.

It is now building the 2012 Focus Electric in the Michigan Assembly Plant (MAP). No, they’re not the first with an electric vehicle (EV). In fact, this is not even Ford’s first EV, as it has been offering the Transit Connect Electric commercial vehicle since December 2010. But things like an estimated 100 MPGe (that’s the miles per gallon equivalency rating for EVs, as there are no gallons of gas involved) notwithstanding, what’s notable is that they’re producing it on the line at MAP right along with the gasoline powered-Focuses, because the EV version is essentially a trim-level variant, as the components are designed to install in a fairly analogous way to those in the non-EV Focuses.

What’s more, MAP will start production in the second half of 2012 of two other electrified vehicles, the C-MAX Hybrid and the C-MAX Energi. The C-MAX, a high-roof vehicle (64 in.) with as much as 24.9-ft3 behind the second row (hybrid version), is a new vehicle to Ford’s U.S. offering (the C-platform vehicle has been available in Europe). Both vehicles are hybrids using lithium-ion batteries for energy storage (there is no non-hybrid C-MAX available in the U.S. market, unlike in Europe). The Energi is a plug-in hybrid.

In addition to which, John Fleming, Ford’s Executive Vice President, Global Manufacturing and Labor Affairs, points out that the company’s Van Dyke Transmission Plant in Sterling Heights, MI, will become the largest manufacturer of hybrid transmissions in North America when the C-MAX launches. And the Rawsonville Plant in Ypsilanti, MI, is assembling lithium-ion battery packs for the vehicles. In the case of the former, it was work that had been done by a supplier in Japan; in the latter, the batteries had been assembled by a supplier in Mexico. Now this vehicle electrification work is being done in southeastern Michigan.

It’s worth noting that Ford has been offering hybrid versions of its Fusion and Lincoln MKZ sedans and its Escape crossover for the past few years, too (although the new Escape isn’t available as a hybrid, with the C-MAX taking on that role).

It is this proliferation of types of vehicles that makes me think Ford will be credited as the company that provided the “electrified wheels for the world.” Time will tell.