DETROIT -- 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.
He spoke with Staff Reporter Richard Truett in March.
Q: Is it difficult to stay enthusiastic about advancing hybrid technology when fuel prices are low and consumers are picking up their old 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.