Photo courtesy of Sustainable Brands

Photo courtesy of Sustainable Brands

At Sustainable Brands 2013, I had the opportunity to sit down with Ford’s Global Director of Sustainability, John Viera. He promised me free charging (at my friend’s homes!), and a race van that can corner like a sports car. OK, maybe I misinterpreted some things. Judge for yourself:

Your website leads with the more efficient cars in your product lineup, including the Fusion which won Green Car of the Year at last year’s LA Auto Show. Is that because the SUV’s which have previously dominated the market are finally being eschewed by customers wanting to save money on gas?

It’s a couple of things. In the past, small cars lacked the creature comforts and features our larger cars had. People wanted fuel efficiency, so we had to transform our thinking in terms of what makes a small car attractive. So now we’re including a lot of the luxury features in the smaller cars as well.

I saw that with the car I’m interested in, the Transit Connect. You have the Torque Vectoring Control previously not offered on a utility van. I suspect this would make the twisty roads leading to the race track a lot more fun. OK, so it has eco-boost, but why not hybrid? I know it’s really hard to do an efficient hybrid on a larger vehicle, but how eco is eco-boost really?

Yes, you’re right about it being harder to justify a hybrid on a large vehicle. We’ve found that the larger vehicles have higher torque demands, that you just can’t get from a hybrid, but you can from an eco-boost motor. The electric motor has a tremendous amount of torque, but when fully loaded the batteries would have to work overtime to match the towing capacity of a gas motor. However, we are thoroughly researching hybrids for larger vehicles. We’re also working with Toyota to jointly develop a technology for full-size hybrids for our pickup trucks and such.

Yes, many people do want larger vehicles. Not just for status, but I’ve met drivers in Los Angeles who bought SUV’s because they couldn’t see around all the SUV’s in LA! So it will be great to have more efficient SUV’s.

The future of sustainable transportation isn’t just one technology. But which do you think will dominate Ford’s vehicle lineup in 5 years? 10 years? 20 years? 

I think the movement toward electrification is going to dominate. We define electrification as not only pure battery electric vehicles, but also plug-in hybrids and hybrids. There’s a lot of component commonality among them all, so the more hybrids we sell, the cheaper it’s going to be for us to make pure electrics. So there will come a day when most vehicles on the road are hybrids, and then 20-30 years from now when fossil fuels are impractical we’ll see electric vehicles dominating the market. We see hydrogen in the mix as well, although it’s a ways off. It has more range than a Lithium Ion battery, even though it has its drawbacks.

So the range on a fuel cell car would be greater than that of a Tesla?

Well, you could always put more batteries on there to get more range. The Tesla Model S has twice as much battery capacity as our Focus Electric, and comes at about twice the price.

So how close are you to offering a pure-electric car with the range Tesla offers?

Our Focus battery electric offers 80 mile range. Sure, the Tesla is 200 miles, but at a higher cost.

But that’s the real game-changer, the battery. Are you working with anyone on developing the battery that will outlast what’s currently available from Lithium Ion?

People often ask me how cheap the LiIon battery can get, how much more range it can get. I think the breakthrough will come from something that’s not Lithium Ion. We work closely with MIT, Stanford, Michigan and Georgia Tech, on developing some chemistry or technology that’s a step-change improvement over LiIon.

How integrated will Ford be in peoples’ lives going forward?

We’re planning to be more integrated. Our vehicles will be more part of a lifestyle, not just a mode of transportation. Here at Sustainable Brands, we’re on stage with Whirlpool, talking about the smart grid system, My Energy Lifestyle, where your EV’s battery could indeed power your refrigerator and more in an emergency. We also want to teach customers how they can optimize charging to do it most efficiently and cheaply.

It’s funny that you partner with Whirlpool, because when I was trying to figure out which circuit to plug my electric motorcycle into, I wanted to make sure it wouldn’t overload a 20A fuse. In that process I noticed the clothes dryer has 6amps, which is about what my Zero has at 5amps.

Where do you see turbochargers fitting into a sustainable product offering? 

We’re using them today to boost and downsize our engines. We call our turbo boost engines “Eco Boost” which enables us to provide more power from a smaller displacement engine.

That’s awesome, I had no idea it was something as cool as turbo. I thought it was just some dorky thing that makes the car less fun. You should also call it turbo for the speed freaks like me who want something more powerful.

That’s a good point!

At the LA Auto Show, my inner 16 year-old boy (at my core, I’m just a teenage boy) watched Ken Block drift that Fiesta and totally wanted one too. So what is Ford doing about the fact that so many young Americans don’t seem too interested in owning cars?

We have seen teens losing interest in cars, but these kids grow up. Once they get to that age where they need to commute to work, take their own kids to school, etc. they find a practical need, especially in cities without viable public transit.

What about megacities like New York and even now Los Angeles where cars are actually a burden, and bicycling infrastructure is growing?

While we are moving away from fossil fuel based vehicles, the population is also growing. So even if we’re all in electric cars, if there’s twice as many of us, we’re all stuck in traffic. Sure, the air quality would be better but the quality of life would be worse. So the other area of sustainability we look at is the future of mobility in a much more crowded world, with more megacities, and people’s disposable incomes being different.

We want to help city planners to develop a system where people can drive to a convenient spot to catch a train into the city. Then how can we, as an automaker have real-time information for the drivers, so they know when the next train or bus will arrive. Those are they types of solutions we need to have going forward, we need to move beyond just making more cars and trucks.

I want to thank John again for sitting down to talk with me about Ford’s sustainable future.