PHOTO CAPTION: Lincoln MKS will come with automatic parallel parking option

Why Is Ford Just Tinkering at the Margins?

Ford's new Fusion and Milan Hybrids are exciting improvements, but isn't it capable of so much more?

Published: 01-Jan-2009

Periodically, we here at EV World get press releases from Ford Motor Company about this gee-whiz innovation or that. The most recent is their announcement that certain models of their luxury Lincoln line will now come with a self-parking option. Prior releases talked about their navigation system and the new instrument panel in their Fusion Hybrids.

All this is pretty cool technology, but seems to me just so much tinkering at the the margins of the problem. I mean, I can't think of the last time I had to parallel park. And while I applaud the new Fusion instrument panel and its ability to encourage drivers to drive more efficiently, I am wondering when we'll start to see some real innovation.

Of course, the new Fusion and Milan Hybrids are getting rave reviews -- and I can't wait to get a test drive, myself. We're hearing fuel economy ratings in the low 50 mpg range, and officially some six miles per gallon better than the Toyota Camry, a comparably-sized sedan. In addition, both Ford hybrids can now run in electric mode up to 47 mph.

These are very promising trends, obviously, but I can't help but wonder if Ford isn't capable of more, much more.

Case in point: why was it left to HEVT to develop a plug-in hybrid version of the popular F-150 pickup? You bolt an electric motor to the differential, install some batteries under the bed and write some software that controls when the motor runs. Compared to developing their parallel hybrid system for the Escape and Fusion lines, this would seem fairly trivial.

Or how about an electric Ford Ranger. Ford did this once already, building something like 1,5000 of them. They proved pretty popular, in general. In fact, after the Chevy S10 -- which has a wider frame and can accommodate most of the batteries between the frame rails under the bed -- the Ranger is the most popular electric truck conversion among home do-it-yourselfer. There has even been talk by the UAW in Minneapolis of exploring resuming Ranger EV production at the Ford plant there. And some months back, word got out that Ford has showing employees an electric pickup. Could it be a revamped Ranger EV?

Then there is the Norse saga of Think. Ford bought the Norwegian electric car company in 2000 and sold it in 2004, but not before investing an estimated $100 million in re-engineering and redesigning the car. They even briefly ran national television ads promoting the little electric two-seater here in America.

Of course, Ford will argue they couldn't see how to earn a profit from the car, which briefly resumed production this Fall under its Norwegian owners and again now appears on the verge of bankruptcy. But how much further ahead of the competition would Ford have been had they decided to sell, say Jaguar when they might have actually made a profit, keeping the Think program incubating along, building a few thousand cars a year, refining the technology, streamlining manufacturing, waiting for the global events to catch-up with it?

Hindsight is so clear.

Now every major car company, but Ford, appears to have an all-electric vehicle program, even Chrysler LLC, which simply did the obvious: take two of most successful models -- the Jeep and minivan -- and convert them to electric.

Now, I wouldn't be a bit surprised to learn Ford may have EVs under wraps in Dearborn, but for the moment, it seems the company that invented the affordable automobile a century ago -- and came oh-so-close to building an affordable electric car with Thomas Edison -- is focusing a lot of its talent and energy on relatively unimportant technological fixes that are far from paradigm shifting, the way Henry's Model T was.

When GM's Rick Wagoner and Chrysler's Bob Nardelli arrived on Capitol Hill in their firm's state-of-the-art electric-drive vehicles last month, Ford's Alan Mulally drove up in a nondescript Ford Escape Hybrid, -- a good vehicle, for sure -- but hardly cutting edge.

Of course, he wasn't looking for a hand-out at that point, so maybe he had less to lose. But if you're promising to be the green car leader, then maybe you'd want to demonstrate it.

Oh well, there's always this year's Detroit Auto Show. We can always hope.

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