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Ford plans to offer more hybrids

From REUTERS| June 14 , 2007

Ford Motor Co is planning to expand its range of hybrid vehicles beyond the Ford Escape but sees deep-seated engineering problems facing the launch of a new generation of rechargeable electric cars, an executive said on Tuesday.

Nancy Gioia, who heads Ford hybrid and "sustainable" vehicle programs, said the automaker planned to offer more full hybrids - beyond the Ford Escape sport utility vehicle and its more upscale version, the Mercury Mariner.

Ford has "more full hybrids coming," Gioia told a conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on emerging auto engine technologies monitored by Webcast.

The comments were the first indication of Ford's plans for hybrid vehicle development since April, when Chief Executive Alan Mulally named an executive to a newly created position to oversee environmental issues at the struggling automaker.

Ford became the first American car maker to introduce a hybrid vehicle when it released the Escape SUV in 2004.

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

Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr, who led the automaker until last September, said last month that he regretted that Ford had not moved faster to seize the lead in addressing environmental concerns.

Led by Toyota Motor Corp's Prius, the current generation of hybrid vehicles uses batteries to power the vehicle at low speeds and stop-and-go traffic, delivering higher fuel economy.

While sales of the Prius in the US market have almost doubled to near 77,000 units in the first five months of this year, sales of Ford's Escape and Mariner have trailed far behind.

On a combined basis, sales of the Ford hybrids were up about 8 per cent to just under 11,000 units in the first five months, according to sales data released by the automakers.

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

Gioia said Ford was investigating the possibility of building such a plug-in vehicle but saw major engineering problems to overcome before such cars can be introduced.

She said in order to build a plug-in car with a minimum range of 40 miles on battery power and a top speed of over 60 miles per hour, the size of the battery pack would have to double or triple in size. That would make the vehicle prohibitively heavy and expensive, she said..

The skeptical comments on plug-in technology set Ford apart from its larger US rival, General Motors Corp.

For its part, GM has already begun development work this year on a 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 the production of the vehicle. The Volt is intended to run on a lithium-ion battery pack is still being designed by suppliers.

Current hybrids run on nickel-metal hydride batteries, but the industry is moving toward the lithium-ion batteries now widely used in electronic devices such as laptop computers.

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