Ford found success with the Escape hybrid, and aims to take the environmental lead.
Ford plans big hybrid push
Automaker will offer gas-electric engines in half of Mercury, Lincoln and Ford models by end of decade.
By Christine Tierney / The Detroit News
Ford Motor Co. plans to offer hybrid versions of half the models in its Ford, Mercury and Lincoln brand lineups by the end of the decade as part of a bold strategy to distinguish itself as a leader in safety and environmental innovation.
CEO Bill Ford Jr. is scheduled to outline the strategy today in Dearborn at the Ford Scientific Research Laboratory, which will be renamed to reflect the company's emphasis on innovation, two industry sources told The Detroit News.
The first Detroit carmaker to produce a gas-electric vehicle, Ford plans to ramp up production of hybrids from several thousand in '05 to 250,000 by 2010, the sources said.
Ford also plans to step up development of vehicles running on alternative sources of energy, such as ethanol, and hydrogen-powered fuel-cell cars in a bid to recapture the high ground from leading Japanese automakers Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co.
Bill Ford is a longtime champion of environmental causes, but the Dearborn automaker's main source of profit in recent years has been gas-guzzling trucks and sport utility vehicles. Light trucks, however, are starting to lose their appeal because of high gas prices.
Ford's bid to position itself as a global leader in safety and environmental technology appears designed to distinguish the automaker from its larger and also troubled rival, General Motors Corp. Both automakers are losing money in North America. Ford and GM are expected to announce major downsizing plans soon.
But Bill Ford said recently that the company's restructuring effort also would contain some heartening elements.
In a speech in Washington last November, he signaled that innovative responses to safety and environmental issues would be crucial to Ford's long-term prospects.
"Technological innovation has always played a key role in America's economic success," he said.
"I'm convinced that providing market-driven solutions to these concerns is an outstanding business opportunity that will give us a competitive advantage."
He said the auto industry faced huge challenges in developing new powertrains. "But the potential rewards of this new technology are great. The 100-year reign of the gas-powered internal combustion engine could come to an end in our lifetime," he said.
With its new strategy, Ford is also trying to push back Japan's biggest automakers, which have stressed safety and environmental technology to bolster their brands and limit their reliance on profit-eroding incentives to sell their vehicles.
Last week in Frankfurt, Toyota executives said they expected eventually to offer a hybrid version of every vehicle in their lineup.
When Honda first introduced its fuel-efficient, hybrid Insight to the U.S. market in 1999, the technology was expected to appeal to a small core of environmentalists and technology enthusiasts.
But as the Japanese increased their offerings in the market, notably with the launch of Toyota's Prius compact, demand surged. Most customers now wait weeks or months for delivery of their new hybrids. Demand is so strong that some used hybrids command new-car prices.
Hybrids now account for 1 percent of the U.S. auto market, but the niche is expected to expand dramatically as more automakers, including GM, DaimlerChrysler, Nissan Motor Co. and Porsche offer hybrid models.
After the highly successful launch of its Escape hybrid sport utility vehicle last year, Ford is rolling out a hybrid version of the Mercury Mariner SUV.
So far, the automaker also has said that it was developing hybrid versions of the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan sedans.
Its Japanese affiliate Mazda is building a hybrid Tribute SUV.
DaimlerChrysler, GM and BMW, which recently announced plans to team up to develop hybrid powertrains, do not expect to put a vehicle on the market before 2007.
Most of the hybrid expertise is now concentrated in Japan, but Ford and GM officials have stressed the need to build up the number of hybrid specialist suppliers in North America.
As part of the company's new focus on technological innovation, Ford plans to take further advantage of the highly reputed safety equipment of its Volvo Cars subsidiary for vehicles of its other nameplates.