Talking Ford’s Electric Car Future with EV Chief Mike Tinskey
Nearing the fourth anniversary of the Ford Focus Electric 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 EV space for the Dearborn-based automaker. In Part II of the interview, we focused on future technologies and the new generation of plug-in vehicles.
Autos Cheat Sheet: We wanted to ask about the progress of the Ford C-MAX Solar Energi, one of the more intriguing concepts of the past few years. Since plugging in doesn’t necessarily mean “zero emissions” depending on the source of electricity in the region, this model guaranteed a great deal of emissions-free transportation. Have there been any developments with this car since it first appeared?
Mike Tinskey: First, let me point out a statistic. We maintain a database of energy generation by zip code across the United States so we can tell you the footprint and how the energy is generated. When we do the math, Ford customers just passed half a billion miles in electric mode — a big milestone for us. When you look at the energy generated by zip code for those customers, we’re actually running about 37% of electric miles carbon-free. That’s reflective of a large percentage of these vehicles going to California, where the energy generation has a large percentage of renewables. Therefore, all Ford customers are enjoying a good percentage of carbon-free miles, especially out West.
That’s grid electricity generation by the way. That’s not including people who have solar on their homes. When you look at the customers who are driving electric and have solar panels on their homes, the number goes up significantly. We’ve got about the same percentage of customers who have solar on their homes. There’s a high correlation between plug-in customers and those with solar on their home, about 34%. So that makes it even cleaner.
Autos Cheat Sheet: So can we actually put solar on the vehicle and have it run carbon-free and be self-contained?
Mike Tinskey: The answer for solar is either more roof space or a higher concentration for the energy coming onto the roof. We’ve continued to progress the C-MAX Solar Energi, but getting the concentrator to where it needs to be has been difficult. That project of course is focused on the concentration side.
What’s happened is the heat that concentrator generates is really a challenge. So we’ve been looking at alternatives on how we can develop solar with the help of Georgia Tech, but we’ve had to pivot a bit because of the concentrator. We’ll continue to be bullish on solar. We call it PV+EV (photovoltaic plus electric vehicle). We think PV+EV is a really good combination both on the vehicle side and in the home.
Late last year, we announced a partnership with Sierra Club and SunPower (called Drive Green for Life) where if you buy a Ford plug-in vehicle you get a significant discount on solar on your home. We’re doing advanced development but at the same time we have programs to get customers driving more carbon-free miles today.
Autos Cheat Sheet: What about experiments with solar chargers? We know Ford has over 100 charging stations in company workplaces in North America and plans to add more. Are you testing any solar installations on campus?
Mike Tinskey: There are 43 locations in the U.S. and Canada with nearly 200 total charge stations for employees. There are two locations where we’re using solar. The one at Ford headquarters is fairly large, with a solar canopy covering the parking spaces of 360 employees and can generate over 1 million kWh of electricity annually. We have 14 chargers powered by it. In addition, at our research facility, we have a fast charger installation powered by solar. That’s a real learning experiment seeing how we can couple carbon-free sources directly to vehicles for transportation. We’ve been impressed with what we’ve seen in that installation.
Autos Cheat Sheet: On another note, we wanted to ask about the competition, specifically the Chevy Bolt EV, a concept, and the Tesla Model 3, which has been announced but not shown yet. Of course, both are EVs with 200 miles of range that are expected to have price tags below $40,000, before incentives. Do you feel like these models would be an important next step or should automakers be considering longer ranges (i.e., 300 miles)?
Mike Tinskey: Good question. We’ve been carefully watching the automotive industry as automakers have started to announce the next generation of products. The first generation began several years back when Ford launched the Focus Electric in 2011.
In addition to the longer-range vehicles being announced, we’re also seeing impressive trends relative to how fast these vehicles can charge and with how much power. There were some announcements at Frankfurt and at other auto shows about how other automakers can couple longer range with rapid charging. Can you get a new framework where the customer can go from anywhere to anywhere, replenishing the car’s battery along the way?
Four or five years ago, battery swapping was what everyone was talking about. We all know the challenges battery swapping has. Instead, we’ve seen a progression toward faster charging. The experiment we’re doing at the Ford Engineering Lab relates to fast-charging using renewables, i.e. how quickly we can replenish lithium-ion batteries. While I can’t speak about Ford cycle plans, I can say the trend of more capable BEVs with high-powered replenishment appears to be an industry and technology trend.
Autos Cheat Sheet: So a 200-mile range wouldn’t necessarily be a weakness if a full charge could be had in 10 minutes.
Mike Tinskey: I think the question is how much range does a BEV customer need for daily routines. And if they need more, how would they get that? That’s where I think this high-powered charging system could make a big impact.
Autos Cheat Sheet: Ford announced back in May the company would hire an additional 200 engineers to work on EV technology at the engineering lab in Dearborn. Have there been any developments from that project so far?
Mike Tinskey: We refurbished one of our oldest and historic buildings that used to be called the Powertrain Lab. Now it’s called the Ford Electrification Lab. That building is a cool piece of history. It’s where Henry Ford had his original office, which has been preserved, and it’s now fully occupied by the electrified powertrain engineering team (EPE). It’s one of the quickest growing teams and fully representative of how bullish we are on electrified powertrains and how much that part of the business needs to grow as we evolve.
Autos Cheat Sheet: The “Charging Up” study (published by the Sierra Club, Conservation Law Foundation, and Acadia Center) made a number of points about improving the EV market in the Northeast. Among the recommendations were ways for automakers to increase efforts in marketing and inventory. Do you agree there are things automakers can do better?
Mike Tinskey: I’d answer that question a little differently. You probably have noticed how much automakers (including Ford) have put into the market. Everything from the product to the collaboratives and working on the awareness and through groups like EDTA and EEEI as well as the Drive Oregon Collaborative and California Collaborative.
We’re there every month in every active area promoting electrification. Ford actually has a semi with all of our electrified product that travels to workplaces around the country. We allow employees to sign up and take a ride during their lunch hour or other times in order to try the vehicles out. That’s been going on for the past couple years and has been getting people in the corporate workplace familiar with the products.
On the infrastructure side, there’s been a tremendous amount of collaboration in private and private-public partnerships in standardization. I occasionally hear that automakers should do more — even when we have challenges with customer adoption in a low fuel price environment. But when you peel it back and you look at how much the automakers are investing in the product and the outreach and awareness, I think we’re doing the right amount.
My view is that this market is a marathon, not a sprint. The market is in the early days and it will continue to grow. We need to make sure we invest the right amount as the market grows. I think we’re gonna continue to see customers moving from traditional powertrains into hybrid and electric powertrains. At some point, with the next generation of mainstream BEVs, we’re gonna see those numbers climb. It’s a progression and it will take some time, but the company that matches its product cycle plans to the customer pull is the one that’s gonna end up in the best spot.
Also see Part I of our interview with Mike Tinskey.