Ford begins producing fuel cell fleet in Detroit
Testing of Focus sedans will start in Oct
By Eric Mayne / The Detroit News
Photo's by David Coates / The Detroit News
When the Focus was chosen, MSX was tapped to help redesign the car's exterior, allowing for the fuel cell powertrain's larger size and added weight.
DETROIT — With the hydrogen age visible on the auto industry’s horizon, Ford Motor Co. is starting over where it began — in the Motor City.
On a slow-moving assembly line in an undistinguished concrete-block building on Mt. Elliott on Detroit’s east side, Ford has been quietly assembling Focus sedans powered by hydrogen fuel cells rather than gas-burning internal combustion engines.
Beginning in October, 30 Focus FCVs (fuel cell vehicles) will be shipped to organizations and local governments in Michigan, California, Florida and British Columbia so Ford can evaluate their performance in real-world situations.
The small fleet is Ford’s contribution to a Department of Energy initiative to promote development of hydrogen-based technologies. And they represent an important test of the automaker’s progress on the fuel cell front.
“Everybody claims to be the leader,” said Gerhard Schmidt, Ford vice president of research and advanced engineering. “We are pretty close.”
General Motors Corp. introduced fuel cell vehicles to the world in the late 1960s, but the industry has been slow to develop the technology. Ford, GM, Toyota Motor Co.p., Honda Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co. have fleets of test vehicles, but their numbers are modest, ranging from nine to about 25.
DaimlerChrysler AG claims to have the largest fleet with 100 vehicles.
While automakers see hydrogen technology as a potential successor to internal combustion engines, and forecasts call for mass production of fuel cell vehicles as early as 2015, skeptics point out the considerable challenge of establishing an infrastructure for hydrogen delivery.
Other hurdles range from finding a cost-effective and clean way to produce hydrogen to concerns about the effects of cold weather on fuel cell performance.
Reminiscent of Henry Ford’s humble beginnings 100 years ago in a rented shop on Mack Avenue, the Mt. Elliott site isn’t owned by Ford. It belongs to MSX International, a supplier of contract engineers that has worked on low-volume vehicle lines such as the SVT Mustang Cobra R and the Dodge Viper.
The initial challenge Ford faced was deciding how to package its fuel cell technology, which is derived from a partnership with DaimlerChrysler and Ballard Power Systems of British Columbia, Canada.
Ford and DaimlerChrysler recently moved to buy a Ballard subsidiary, Ballard AG — an investment that cost Ford $110 million against its second-quarter earnings.
Ford and DaimlerChrysler will continue to buy Ballard components, but to ensure greater compatibility with their vehicles, the automakers — through Ballard AG — will have full control of system integration by taking more responsibility for design and software development.
When the Focus was chosen to showcase the system, MSX was tapped to help redesign the car’s exterior, allowing for the fuel cell powertrain’s larger size and added weight. The fuel-cell powered Focus tips the scale at 3,525 pounds, just over 800 pounds more than a top-end conventionally powered Focus.
Rather than build an all-new vehicle, Ford is using an existing vehicle to save time and money.
Ford, the United Auto Workers and MSX collaborated on a solution that enabled the automaker to use its Focus body assembly process at its assembly plant in Wayne.
The resulting skeletons, which feature weight-saving carbon fiber trunk lids and aluminum fenders, are trucked to the Mt. Elliott facility where a crew of 30 oversees final assembly of the Focus FCV.
Except for subtle differences, such as a rear-seat armrest that hides electronic componentry, the Focus FCV is nearly indistinguishable from the standard Focus.
Ford will closely monitor the vehicles’ performance.
“We’re working up a cell phone connectivity solution in which the vehicle’s daily statistics can be downloaded by cell phone to our facilities,” said Mark S. Mehall, chief program engineer.
In each region where the vehicles will go into service, Ford has partnered with BP plc to set up hydrogen fueling stations. The FCV stores its fuel in trunk-mounted cylinders that virtually eliminate cargo space.
Ford already has plans to double the Focus FCV’s fuel-carrying capacity, which will increase its range to more than 300 miles per fillup.
The Focus FCV will get fuel economy that is equivalent to 50 miles per gallon in a conventionally powered car, while emitting only water vapor.
And Schmidt said there is potential for even better fuel technology by the time the industry considers mass production of fuel cell vehicles sometime after 2015.
On a separate track, Ford is launching its first gasoline-electric vehicle, the Escape Hybrid sport utility, this year. The company plans to build and sell 20,000 of the vehicles.
Ford has taken fire from environmentalists because it ranks last in overall fuel economy among the top six automakers in the U.S. market.
Schmidt said no one technology will meet all the needs of motorists in the future.
“There is not one solution,” he said. “We will have some downtown areas that require fuel cell or hybrid. We will have some long-distance heavy trucks with diesels.
“We will have more tailored solutions for specific markets and for specific customers. I’m absolutely convinced that we will have a diverse landscape of powertrain and propulsion systems. There will be no single winner.”
Doug Allen and Greg McCown install the fuel cell in the Focus at MSX International in Detroit. Thirty Focus FCVs will be built and their performance will be evaluated in real world situations in three states and Canada.
William Glazer puts the high voltage battery in the Focus. The fleet is Ford's contribution to a U.S. initiative to promote development of hydrogen-based technology.