If you’re talking about electric vehicles, Ford has to be part of the conversation. Beginning with the release of the Focus Electric in 2011 and continuing with the C-MAX Energi (2012) and Fusion Energi (2013) plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), the automaker has been both a pioneer and a leader in segment sales.
In fact, Ford’s electrified lineup continues to hold sway in the marketplace. Excluding Tesla, which does not quote U.S. sales, Ford has held over 20% of the domestic plug-in EV market (73,447) in 2015 with 15,514 sales through October, according to InsideEVs.
Nearing the fourth anniversary of the Focus Electric’s debut, Autos Cheat Sheet spoke with Mike Tinskey, global director of vehicle electrification & infrastructure, Ford Motor Company, to find out what has been working and what’s next in the space for the Dearborn-based automaker. In Part I of the interview, we focused on takeaways from the first generation of plug-in vehicles.
Autos Cheat Sheet: Ford has been in the EV business for a large chunk of time. What are the biggest lessons you have learned from that time in the marketplace?
Mike Tinskey: One of the big things we’ve learned when we look at our portfolio is our customers are really pleased with and drawn to our electrified plug-in products (hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and battery electric). We find when they walk through the showroom, customers are looking hard at the plug-in hybrids.
Another thing we see in the data is workplace charging is becoming more prevalent. Not only here on the Ford campus but in other places. For example, two years ago (2013), we saw that our plug-in customers were driving about four trips a day and those trips totaled about 37 miles a day, and they were getting three of the four trips every day were in electric mode.
Those numbers are slowly increasing creeping up to greater than three out of four trips. That’s because some customers are getting a second charge at work. Those vehicles are behaving during the work week much more like pure EVs than hybrids.
Autos Cheat Sheet: When you weigh the development of plug-in hybrids versus pure EVs, how has this data influenced your plans?
Mike Tinskey: I can’t talk about our future products, but every month, we produce a report on our electric vehicles and it goes to product development (the primary customer), along with the marketing and sustainability departments, and that data is being used to shape our future cycle plans. They see the trends in those reports and we can adjust our cycle plans to make sure we are optimizing for the customer usage.
Autos Cheat Sheet: I saw the Ford Focus Electric ad running during the World Series and was impressed with how performance was the main message. We know your research about what EV drivers like showed a high percentage citing driving experience as the key to choosing an electric product. Is this factor a priority as you market electric cars?
Mike Tinskey: Absolutely. Before we entered the hybrid and plug-in market, the No. 1 hybrid seller was (and is) Toyota — but Ford is gaining fast. What we saw was an opportunity to focus on the dynamic and advanced features of electrification. Customers tell us they love C-MAX for not just being a great EV with fantastic fuel efficiency and technology, but as a just a great car that is roomy, comfortable, fun to drive, and offers real value.
If you look at our conversion numbers for C-MAX and C-MAX Energi, the rate is well over 60% (closer to 70%) and most of those customers are buying from Toyota. We believe it’s a great strategy and we’ve been really proud of it.
The commercial you referenced … the theme of that commercial is dynamic and advanced, but yet it’s functional and comfortable. Highlighting the exciting drivetrain first and foremost is what we want to do.
It’s the first time we’ve actually had an ad for any of our EV offerings. You also noticed that ad came during sports games. You saw it during the 2015 World Series; others saw it on Monday Night Football. A reason we target sporting events is they’re one of the few things on TV that are not DVR’ed or recorded, so people generally see the commercials. So we’re trying to get the word out that driving electric can be fun and producing a halo-type ad for the Ford Focus Electric.
Autos Cheat Sheet: You have had experience in several EV markets around the world. What are some of the infrastructure lessons that could help us in the U.S.?
Mike Tinskey: There are many lessons there. Ford started in the U.S. market then expanded to Europe and then to China. Certainly, the U.S. can continue to improve and learn. In Europe, we learned how complex the market is relative to other countries as far as electricity is concerned. It’s a different configuration. We also learned that wiring in residential homes tends to be older and needs to be checked in order to be compatible.
Driving speeds are higher in parts of Europe, so driving electric will involve charging more often. Regarding infrastructure, what Europe is doing better than the U.S. is harmonization. After 2017, they dictated that every station needs to go a certain way, which will drive harmonization in Europe. In the U.S. we’re doing more of a free-market approach. We’re gonna end up a little less harmonized than Europe. In China, they dictate one and one only, which happens to be different from the rest of the world. That’s the other extreme.
China is figuring out charging solutions for multifamily dwelling quicker than we’re figuring out. They are focusing more on fast charging now for multifamily homes. You can do a lot more if you can get those charge powers up.
Autos Cheat Sheet: We saw a recent study detailing just how far the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic EV markets are behind California. What do you see as some of the key factors behind the wide disparity?
Mike Tinskey: First and foremost, there are the financial incentives and HOV lane access, which has been a tremendous help for customer pull in California. They’ve also invested big in infrastructure on state and federal levels — sometimes even local levels. California has done an excellent job promoting electrification. New York is doing its part on infrastructure, but it has its challenges.
The lack of HOV lane access [outside of the Long Island Expressway] and the colder temperatures forcing people to charge more often are challenges. That can be overcome as the industry improves but I think there’s a lot more that can be done in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions as far as infrastructure goes. People are going to have to charge more often in winter. Maybe the plug-in hybrid is the best choice in these areas. I think we need to be flexible across the U.S. for what product makes sense for that demographic. We’ve always been bullish on plug-in hybrids.
Autos Cheat Sheet: We spoke about some of the research Ford has done in the EV space, and I can’t help but think the results are helped along by how open electric car drivers are to sharing information. Do you notice a willingness to help that is unique to the segment’s consumers?
Mike Tinskey: Definitely. We can confidently say customers that switch to an electrified product are unlikely to switch back to a conventional product. They are very passionate and tend to love the driving experience. We typically reach out to not only our own customers, but to a broader group that has been formed through our partner company called PlugInsights. They keep a list of the electric car drivers open to speaking about the experience.
We use PlugInsights quite a bit to ask questions of that group representing EV drivers from across the industry. They get feedback for future products and features. I believe none of those customers are paid but we get a tremendous reception, a willingness to share what they like and dislike. It’s a new type of focus group, done through online feedback.
Also see Part II of our interview with Mike Tinskey.