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Ford explains use of Japanese hybrid parts

DETROIT - Ford Motor Co. is defending its decision to buy key hybrid-engine powertrain parts from a Japanese company despite its participation in a government-funded program designed to aid U.S. suppliers of advanced technology.

The program, called the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, funds research in areas such as fuel cells, lightweight materials and hybrid engines.

Ford stuck to corporate policy and looked worldwide for the best parts at the lowest cost, said Prabhakar Patil, chief program engineer for hybrid electric vehicles.

"It's our obligation to try and provide the customer the best value and the best product for their money," Patil said of the Escape hybrid.

The 2003 Escape hybrid will be powered by an electric motor and a four-cylinder gasoline engine. Ford will buy the sport-utility's transaxle, which includes the electric drive motor and generator, from Aisin AW of Japan. The vehicle will get about 40 mpg.

Under the partnership, Ford is not obligated to buy production parts from domestic suppliers. But a clear goal of the taxpayer-funded program is to boost competitiveness of U.S.-based suppliers.

Volvo connection

Ford's 1999 purchase of Volvo Car Corp. connected Ford and Aisin. The Swedish automaker and Aisin were working on a gasoline-electric hybrid and had developed a transaxle with an electric motor and generator that was almost ready for production.

When Ford bought Volvo, it took over Volvo's role in the development of the unit. And while Ford's chairman, William Clay Ford Jr., was talking about "being the world's most environmentally friendly automaker," Honda and Toyota were proceeding with plans to introduce the Insight and Prius hybrids.

So Ford engineers were under the gun to meet the twin goals of competing with Honda and Toyota and increasing by 25 percent the fuel economy of its sport-utility fleet by 2005. Patil said Ford felt the competitive pressure to get its own vehicle on the market as soon as possible. Using the Aisin system - now called PowerSmart - sped up the process, he said.

The Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles was established in 1993. Its primary goal was to help U.S. automakers create 80-mpg, production-ready cars by 2004.

Only General Motors' Precept hybrid has achieved 80 mpg. But the swoopy concept car has virtually no chance of seeing production because it would cost too much to build.

The partnership has received about $1.5 billion from U.S. taxpayers. Most of the money went to national laboratories, research institutions and supplier groups. Only a small percentage has gone to the Big 3.

Patil said the Escape hybrid program has benefited from the partnership in at least two ways: Helping select the best drivetrain and writing the software for the computer that governs the gasoline engine, electric motor and generator.

"It's not necessarily a particular piece of hardware that you point a finger to and say that came from PNGV. Because if you look at fundamentally the objective of PNGV, it was to identify first of all the overall architecture. That it did. PNGV went into specific component technologies. It established goals for power electronics, for motors, for batteries and for engines. It's like understanding the overall equation," Patil said.

Made in Japan

Though it is buying the hybrid drivetrain from a Japanese company, Ford says it is living up to the spirit of PNGV. Ford has hired 160 engineers to write the software for the sophisticated computer that governs the gasoline engine, electric motor and generator. It will assemble the Escape hybrid in its Kansas City, Mo., plant.

Aisin will manufacture the transaxle in Japan and ship it to Kansas City, a Ford spokesman said.

The PowerSmart transaxle is a complex piece of machinery that can switch from series path, in which the engine runs the generator to provide power for the electric motor, to parallel path, in which the engine and electric motor both drive the wheels.

"The brake, the accelerator, the shift lever all are by wire," Patil said. "It's like managing the orchestra. That is a very nontrivial task and operation because it is affecting everything in the vehicle."

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com

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