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Ford's Better Idea: An Electric Car, with Apps

Ford unveils apps at the 2011 CES to revolutionize the electric car experience, with the focus on its newly unveiled electric Ford Focus.


ford focus electric

The new Ford Focus electric: Range anxiety is one reason for a plethora of charging apps. (Jim Motavalli photo)

LAS VEGAS – The car is king in Vegas, especially the stretched limo variety. This is one of America's most pedestrian- and transit-unfriendly cities, with huge, wide boulevards that make you scared to cross even on the green. On the strip, everything is miles apart, and routed through a casino so you miss no opportunities to waste your money. The monorail is great as long as your destination is a casino. (The stations are right next to the slot machines.)

The car is also king at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which I'm attending. Automobiles have become mobile platforms for every app under the sun, and all of them are on sale here. I admired one such device, a small battery-powered circle that resembled a Star Trek phaser, but was capable of heating and cooling an idle car's interior to 75 degrees. Why didn't I think of that? The entrepreneur was named Booker T. Washington, Jr., and he was indeed descended from that civil rights pioneer.

It might seem odd that Ford chose to debut its long-anticipated electric version of the Focus at the CES show instead of at the big Detroit show next week, but its presentation leaned heavily on onboard apps that keep track of and maximize the car's charge. Ford has partnerships with Best Buy's Geek Squad (to install chargers), Microsoft (for an app that charges during low utility rates), MapQuest (to find charging stations) and others. The Focus, with a 23-kilowatt-hour battery pack, will go about 100 miles on a charge – though the specific range was never mentioned from the stage. If it was 300 miles, CEO Alan Mulally, in full charm mode, would have mentioned it.

Related: 7 Electric Cars Available in 2011

What he did talk about was the quick recharge time – just three hours, "half the charge time of the Nissan Leaf," the company said. That is indeed something to crow about. 

The electric Focus five-door hatchback is a global car, built on Ford's C-car platform that also has diesel and gasoline Focus variants. This is just one arm of Ford's electric strategy. I went by Ford's booth and saw the Transit Connect, a homely electric vehicle that I've long championed. Brad Probert, Ford's program manager, told me the small electric delivery vans have already been delivered to Southern California Edison, AT&T, the Canada Post, the New York Power Authority and others. But the numbers are distressingly small – just 30 vehicles worldwide so far.

Probert told me that Ford's goal is to sell 1,000 of these commercial vehicles annually (it goes to Europe later this year), but that still seems like very small numbers for a very versatile delivery vehicle that actually has prospects of reducing the cost of corporate fleets. The aim is also rather low for the Focus. Mulally didn't talk numbers in Las Vegas, but I've heard the company say that initial numbers for the electric Focus will be just 3,500 to 5,000 annually. Again, a very cautious approach to a car introduced with such fanfare and glitz in a city known for such.

Also coming from Ford is a plug-in hybrid, but we've heard very little about that one lately. Among the big questions are which platform it will ride on. It could be an Escape, but Ford isn't confirming that. One thing we do know – the electric Focus will be wired.

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Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli is a senior writer at E/The Environmental Magazine, a regular contributor to the New York Times and author most recently of Naked in the Woods: Joseph Knowles and the Legacy of Frontier Fakery.
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Forward Drive: The race to build "clean" cars of the future.
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