Kevin Layden is a cheerful, easygoing guy who, outwardly at least, seems impervious to the high pressures of his job: managing Ford’s hybrid and electrification efforts. If the stress gets to him, he doesn’t show it.
And there has been plenty of stress lately. Crashing gasoline prices have dramatically slowed industry sales of battery-electric and hybrid vehicles, forcing automakers to pile on incentives to keep buyers interested. In California, for example, rebates and tax incentives knock almost 40 percent off the price of a Nissan Leaf. Toyota has scaled back production targets for the top-selling Prius.
Then there are the newer offerings from competitors, such as the upcoming Chevrolet Bolt hatchback, which, General Motors promises, can drive 200 miles on a single charge -- more than twice the range of the current Focus Electric.
Rather than retrenching from electrified vehicles, Ford is doubling down, committing $4.5 billion to develop the next generation of EVs and powertrains. And Layden is the man who will spend a big chunk of that cash.
Layden, 53, a 30-year Ford veteran, has spent his career trying to make things work more efficiently. He’s had a hand in developing many of Ford’s award-winning European diesel engines as well as the trend-setting, 1.0-liter, three-cylinder engine available in the Fiesta and Focus.
Although Layden could drive any vehicle in Ford’s fleet, his family runs a stable of plug-in hybrids. When he is not working, he likes to travel with family and spend time camping and hiking. Getting closer to nature, you sense, re-energizes his commitment to reduce vehicle CO2 emissions.
Layden is convinced that either through improvements in lithium ion battery chemistry or development of revolutionary technologies, power density, range and performance of electrified vehicles will continue to improve.
I caught up with Layden recently and posed a few questions. Here’s our conversation.
Q: Is it difficult to stay enthusiastic about advancing hybrid technology when fuel prices are so low and consumers are picking up their old, bad habits of buying SUVs and pickups?
A: It’s easy to remain enthusiastic. You have to remember, hybrids came on the scene with fuel at $1 a gallon in the United States. We’ve been driving the cost of the system down and driving the mpg up. In fact, today’s hybrids are more economical and better performers than prior generations. Reliability and durability are a “why buy” for Ford. With [plug-in hybrid electric vehicles], we’re selling better economics as well as features. People are buying because they can go 10 weeks without going to the gas station. That means less time standing in the cold or rain. The features, the reliability, the excellent driving experience and the economics are continuing to build. More to come on all of these fronts.
If we are going to live in a world of cheap fuel where pickups and SUVs dominate sales, what do you think is the best way to electrify these heavy vehicles? We see GM coming out with a belt-alternator system on trucks, for example, but we know that consumers have not valued hybrid trucks.
Ford has announced we will do a [hybrid] full-size SUV/truck by the end of the decade. We were pioneers in making great product that matched consumer needs but also came with hybrid technology. The Escape Hybrid was well-received and provided great attributes. You can bet that Ford will not disappoint anyone when we do SUV/truck hybrids. We have the technology and the experts to make a fantastic vehicle with no compromise on attributes.
In December, Ford committed $4.5 billion for electrified vehicles. So, obviously, the decision to invest that kind of money isn’t based on short-term fuel prices. Can you give us a flavor on how some of that money will be spent? For example, can you say some will go to fuel cells, some for research into batteries, maybe next-generation electronic continuously variable transmissions, etc.?
Ford will deliver 13 new electrified vehicles by 2020. This is the big push,delivering more and better electrified vehicles -- [hybrid-electric vehicles], PHEV and BEV.
As part of this effort, we will be driving down costs of batteries, inverters and other EV components. We’ll develop the next generation of the Powersplit front-wheel-drive transmission and rear-wheel-drive applications previously announced.
In addition, we will continue our research efforts, which are not included in the $4.5 billion. We continue working with our supplier partners to bring to market new battery technology, and we’ll continue working with great universities, such as the University of Michigan, to search for new breakthroughs and to develop new relationships. We will continue fuel cell research and development in Vancouver with our partner, Daimler. Ford is very active in the pure science, research and development of all electrified efforts.
GM was first with a range extender in the Volt, and now BMW has one in the i3. Does Ford think a range extender is worth a second look?
We’re very comfortable with the efficiency of the Powersplit transmission as a PHEV choice. The overall efficiency can’t be matched by a range extender. You can look at some of our key competitors, such as GM, who have increased the size of their engines and gone to a powersplit configuration to try to close the gap with Ford on attributes including fuel economy.
What lessons have been learned from the Focus Electric that can help improve the marketing appeal of whatever replaces it?
We learn from every vehicle we produce. We constantly evaluate quality and customer satisfaction. The Focus Electric is no different. We see that customers love to drive electric. They find the charging system easy to understand and convenient. They love the full, five-passenger seating. For their next vehicle, they are expecting Ford to deliver continuous improvements, such as more range, more range and more range. With the 100-mile version of the Focus Electric coming next year, we will have an even more compelling product. With DC charging, we’ll have more flexibility. We’ll still have great durability, reliability and overall quality.
I know you can’t talk about future products in great detail, but can you say whether Ford is interested in electric rear axles? We are seeing them start to reach the market in Europe.
You have to make sure you are spending the money correctly. If you can deliver all-wheel drive without an electric-rear-axle design, that’s a good thing because you avoid an incremental rear motor and incremental inverter, which can be expensive relative to a mechanical gearbox. At the same time, an electric rear axle does give you some flexibility to do some things that you might not be able to do with a mechanical all-wheel drive, some packaging flexibility. We are definitely evaluating it.