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'We're committed to this'
Ford hybrid chief touts technology as automaker ramps up production

By RICHARD TRUETT | AUTOMOTIVE NEWS
AutoWeek

Nancy Gioia, Ford's director of sustainable mobility technologies and hybrid-vehicle programs, is one of the torchbearers in Bill Ford's revamped Ford Motor Co. who stresses innovation.

The automaker was first among the domestic automakers to launch full hybrid vehicles. It is working to increase production to 250,000 units a year by 2010, up from 30,000 in 2006.

Gioia, 45, leads 350 hybrid engineers in Ford's Dearborn, Mich., research center. She spoke this month with Automotive News Staff Reporter Richard Truett.
Is Toyota making it difficult for other automakers to obtain enough batteries and other parts to build hybrids in high volume?

Toyota isn't making it harder. I think Toyota has a very aggressive approach on their suppliers. They in-source and outsource and they have their keiretsu, and it is very strong. The (North American and global) supply chain and development that we are working on is not in any way inhibited by Toyota. Strategically, the way I am approaching it is that no other competitor can inhibit us. That is one of the factors of sensitivity. Can I be derailed by someone else's actions?

There are plenty of articles from Consumer Reports and others about how hybrids won't pay for themselves. Other options, such as leather interiors and sunroofs, don't pay for themselves. Is the potential for an optional hybrid powertrain to pay for itself a valid observation?

A huge part of our consumer base makes economic decisions that way. So educating ourselves, because there are a bunch of factors involved, is a good thing. To say there is no payback is based on all of the numbers today -- the price of fuel, the cost of insurance, the tax incentives today, the resale value today. The cost of ownership can change. You are saving on fuel, insurance, brakes, oil, and wear and tear.

You and Ford know a lot more today about marketing hybrids than you did eight months ago when you took this job. What have you learned?

First of all, we better talk about them. As proud as we are internally, we need to show that externally a little bit more. I think a big part of it first and foremost is that people understand that we are in that business and committed to that business, and we are moving forward on that business. Whatever the latest headlines are, our commitment is unwavering, and we are moving down that path. So you are going to hear us be very consistent with that message. And you are going to hear that our hybrids -- Ford, Lincoln and Mercury brands -- are going to deliver fuel economy. That is our vision. That is what the purpose of that technology is.

What else has Ford learned about selling hybrids?

I love our Escape Hybrid, but it is a little hard to tell it from the base gasoline Escape on the road 50 feet away. I think you are going to see some movement on that. There isn't going to be any outlandish science-experiment differentiation, but there is going to be some differentiation. People who drive hybrids want to make a statement that they are driving a hybrid.

Is that the lesson of the Toyota Prius?

I think having visual differentiation is something that our customers are looking for. But it doesn't have to be as out there as a Prius is.

How would you make an Escape Hybrid different? With badges or wheels?

If you are going down the road at, say, 35 mph, can I really tell the difference in a wheel? We are talking form and function. If the form changes the functionality of more sustainable product materials, more fuel efficiency, lower air resistance, things like that, I think we will try to do that. More and more of the visual differentiation, exterior and interior, needs to deliver and be consistent with what our customers are looking for, which is a great, no-excuses product that delivers greater fuel economy.

Are hybrid sales cyclical in that they increase along with gasoline prices?

That's just the nature of the newness of it. It depends on external factors, the price of gasoline and taxation issues. I believe very strongly that hybrid technology will be one of the technologies going forward. It is helping us learn so much about other things as well.

Can you lay out a road map to 2010, and how Ford will ramp up to 250,000 hybrids a year globally?

We have the Escape. The Mariner has joined. The (Mazda) Tribute is coming next year. Then we have the Milan, the Fusion, the Edge, the (Lincoln) MKX, Five Hundred and Montego. Those are the ones we've announced. We will have the capacity and capability to produce at least 250,000. We are also looking at meeting growing global needs in Europe and Asia, where CO2 legislation will drive the need for hybrids as well.

So you think that even with diesel so entrenched in Europe, hybrids have a chance to catch on there?

If we think about the pattern in Europe that diesel took. In Europe, they do some things very different than we do. They are very effective at changing personal behavior based on personal and company taxation, not so much regulation. What you saw there was a very, very rapid change to diesel because of personal taxation making it advantageous to having a diesel. I think as the EU (European Union) goes through their CO2 regulations, it will be interesting to see how it plays out. But because of greenhouse-gas concerns in Europe, I think we'll see a rapid change there.

Why is it taking so long to launch the Mazda Tribute Hybrid when it is basically the same vehicle as the Escape and Mariner?

The reason is because hybrids require a lot of training of the infrastructure -- the dealerships, the sales personnel. Our Mazda dealership network needs to be ready. Having customers go to dealerships and get poor service is terrible. We can't do that.

Toyota has a rear-wheel-drive hybrid transmission. GM, working with DaimlerChrysler and BMW, will have one starting next fall. Can you say what Ford's plans are for a rear-wheel-drive hybrid transmission?

No. We are progressing with the plans we have. And as we get announcements available, we will share them.

Can you reach the 250,000-a-year hybrid goal without a rear-wheel-drive transmission?

Again, you are in the realm of future product plans.

This has been a good year for Ford's hybrids. As sales increase because of better marketing or higher fuel prices, can we expect some of the incentives to be scaled back?

Sure. If demand goes up, that's the old law of economics. But one of the things we are concerned about is making sustainability affordable. That's a broad goal. We have a number of initiatives in the company aimed at the concept of making sustainable transportation affordable for the masses. And that means sustainable businesses -- sustainable products for consumers so that their personal mobility won't be threatened, so that their family's ability to go on vacation won't be threatened. We want to make that affordable for our customers. That drives us each and every day to find better solutions, get the new technology, bring it reliability and have it be there for the next vehicle.

Ford got rave reviews for the series of clinics for hybrid customers last year. Any plans to do that again?

After that experience, almost the entire group of hybrid customers got better fuel economy, and they have had more fun with their hybrids. We are looking at doing that again. We might take it to some other regions around the country. Last time we had people driving from all states and Canada. They were very passionate.
 
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