AUTOMOTIVE NEWS WORLD CONGRESS

Ford mulling plug-in hybrid vehicle

Nancy Gioia
DETROIT (Reuters) -- Ford Motor Co. is considering the development of plug-in hybrid vehicles in an effort to provide alternate energy sources, the director of the automaker's hybrid program said today.

Speaking at the Automotive News World Congress in Dearborn, Mich., Nancy Gioia said the automaker is considering adding plug-ins products, but the biggest challenge in development is battery technology.

"The biggest barrier is the battery," Gioia said. Plug-in hybrids use a battery as the main source of energy and can be recharged at electrical outlets.

Battery technology is key to the next generation of hybrid vehicles as automakers seek ways to lower the cost of batteries and increase their power and storage capacity.

Gioia's comments came a week after General Motors revived its once-failed idea of a mass-market electric car, unveiling a new concept car called the Chevrolet Volt designed to use little or no gasoline.

Gioia declined to provide a timeline on plug-in hybrids, but said they will be more expensive than other vehicles. Gioia also said people will likely not buy plug-ins without big federal tax breaks.

Ford currently makes hybrid powertrain versions of its Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner SUVs.

Gioia said Ford has scaled back its previous hybrid strategy due to limited appeal for such vehicles.

She said demand for hybrids will be hurt as U.S. gasoline prices have begun to fall.

"In the U.S., hybrid demand tracks fuel prices," she said.

The Volt is designed to run for 40 miles on pure electric power, but GM executives also said the main delay in production is the development of batteries.

GM's program relies on lithium-ion battery technology that Gioia called "cost, weight and package prohibitive."

U.S. automakers are seeking to distance themselves from close association with gas-guzzling SUVs as they try to gain ground in alternative energy technology -- an area in which they have lagged.

Japanese automaker Toyota Motor Corp. was the first to hit the market with a hybrid vehicle that runs on a combination of gas and electricity and dominates the hybrid market.

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