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Ford to debut 1st ethanol hybrid

Escape won't go into production


The Ford Escape Hybrid E85 can operate on ethanol-based fuel. While the vehicle is unlikely to go into production, it'll be used to study future technology. (Ford Motor Co.)

Two days after pledging more fuel-efficient vehicles as part of a massive corporate restructuring, Ford Motor Co. is to unveil today an ethanol-powered hybrid test vehicle it says will point to ways to reduce dependence on foreign oil.

But the problem is that the flex-fuel Escape Hybrid being unveiled at the Washington Auto Show gets worse fuel economy and doesn't meet the same emissions standards when it runs on ethanol instead of gasoline. These shortcomings highlight two of the challenges ethanol has to overcome before it can make an impact on U.S. energy consumption.

Ford said the Escape Hybrid research vehicle was the first to combine hybrid technology with the ability to burn a mixture of gasoline and up to 85% ethanol known as E85. The vehicle isn't destined for production, but meant to explore ways to improve flexible-fuel engines.

The program also will tout Ford's efforts to build 250,000 hybrids annually by the end of the decade and 250,000 vehicles this year that can run on E85.

"This is marrying two technologies that really offer the best of both worlds," Sue Cischke, Ford's vice president of environmental and safety engineering, said Tuesday. "If you want to solve the energy problem, hybrids do that in the city and E85 does that on the highway."

Ethanol, which is typically made from corn in the United States, has long been touted as a way to reduce oil imports while boosting rural economies. It can be made from several types of plants and offers the promise of a renewable fuel that moderates greenhouse gas emissions.

Nearly 90% of the ethanol made today is used as a gasoline additive to reduce smog in urban areas, and ethanol proponents say fuels with more ethanol could cut oil imports.

But ethanol has several drawbacks:

A gallon of ethanol holds less energy than a gallon of gasoline, making mileage worse. Cischke said the Escape Hybrid E85 has about a 25% reduction in fuel economy on E85 than on regular gasoline blends.

Ethanol also can evaporate at lower temperatures than gasoline, which means the Escape Hybrid E85 doesn't meet the "partial zero emissions vehicle" standard that the regular version does.

"We do have some hurdles we have to solve," Cischke said. "But they're not unsolvable."

Ford, General Motors Corp. and DaimlerChrysler AG all have sold E85-capable vehicles in recent years and have said they would expand their offerings. But environmental groups contend the real driver has been a federal fuel-economy credit for flex-fuel vehicles, which the automakers receive regardless of whether the vehicles ever actually run on E85.

Of about 170,000 U.S. gas stations, only about 500 sell E85, according to the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition, which promotes ethanol use. While the coalition expects that number will rise to about 2,500 by the end of the year, government experts estimate that supplies of E85 will remain tiny -- less than 1% of the gasoline burned annually in cars and trucks -- for years to come.

"The Big Three's enthusiasm about E85 has nothing to do with environmental improvement because the vast majority of vehicles will never see a drop of the stuff," said Dan Becker, the Sierra Club's director of global warming research.
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