CES 2011: Ford rolls out the fast-charging Focus Electric

For the first time ever, Ford revealed a new production at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. In what has become an annual tradition with his third appearance Ford CEO Alan Mulally showed off the new 2012 Focus Electric. The world first learned about the Focus Electric in December 2008 when the Detroit automakers had to submit their viability plans to the federal government as part of the discussions to get bailouts for General Motors and Chrysler. At the time Ford revealed plans to produce two battery electric vehicles (BEV), a commercial vehicle which is now in production as the Transit Connect Electric and a car, the upcoming Focus.

The reveal of the Focus Electric in the Las Vegas Hilton ball room yielded only one real surprise, the fast 240 volt charging capability. The Nissan Leaf which has been on sale for several weeks already supports 240 V charging but the input current is restricted so that charging power is limited to just 3.3 kilowatts, the lower limit for so-called level 2 charging equipment. Anyone that has picked up their phone or computer while the battery is charging knows that it heats up while taking in electrons. Nissan opted to go with an air-cooled lithium ion battery pack for the Leaf and which gives them limited latitude for cooling the battery during charging, thus the relatively slow charge rate.

Ford on the other hand is using a liquid cooled pack in the Focus that allows for active thermal management. As a result, Ford is allowing the Focus to charge at the maximum 6.6 kilowatts allowed by the level 2 standard. That means the Focus Electric’s 23 kilowatt-hour battery can be charged in just 3-4 hours compared to the 8-10 hours for the 24 kWh pack in the Nissan. Ford developed the battery pack in-house and will assemble them at a plant west of Detroit. The lithium cells are being supplied by South Korea’s LG Chem and are similar to those used in both the Chevrolet Volt and Hyundai Sonata hybrid.

For those that want to take advantage of the 3-4 hour charge capability, Ford has partnered with Best Buy to have its Geek Squad crews come out and install 240 V chargers for $1,499. That ‘s $500 less than the installed price for a Volt charger and as much as $1,000 less than the AeroVironment chargers being pushed by Nissan for Leaf buyers.

At the reveal Ford wasn’t talking much the Focus Electric range specs, but has previously targeted a range of about 100 miles. Real world range will likely be in the same 80-100 mile range expected for the Leaf. Propulsion comes from a 100 kW electric motor and top speed is limited to 84 mph. Visually, the EV Focus gets unique 17-inch wheels and an Aston-Martin-esque grille that is blanked off to optimize the aerodynamics. Inside, the same dual LCD instrument cluster found in the Fusion hybrid is in place but programmed with new displays tuned to the battery-only operation. Like the Leaf and Chevy Volt, Ford has also developed a smart phone app that lets owners monitor and manage battery charging so that the vehicle can be prepared when needed.

Ford is showing the Focus only as a five door hatchback in Las Vegas, but the EV should be available as a four door sedan as well.  When the new Focus was first previewed in late 2009 Ford said that the new platform has been engineered to accommodate conventional, hybrid and full electric powertrains, all of which can be built on the same assembly line. The Focus Electric goes on sale in late 2011 at a yet to be announced price.

CES 2011: GM brings wireless phone charging to the car

Having addressed the problem of range anxiety for electric vehicles with the Chevrolet Volt, General Motors’ John Laukner has now set out to do the same for smartphones through the latest investment from GM Ventures. At the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show, GM announced that its new venture capital fund would be investing $5 million in Powermat, a manufacturer of inductive charging systems for portable electronics.

Anyone that regularly uses a modern smartphone knows that battery life is aggravatingly short. With Ford, BMW, Kia, Lexus and, of course, GM launching infotainment systems that can support bluetooth streaming and control of apps like Pandora on phones, this minor annoyance is going to grow into a throbbing pain in the ass. General Motors is putting its money where its mouth is in developing a painkiller, though.

GM will soon be addressing digital-device range anxiety by integrating Powermat’s inductive charging pads into new vehicles. A prototype Chevrolet Volt on display at CES has two Powermats installed in the center console, one each between the the front and rear seats.

Inductive charging systems offer a convenient way to eliminate a plethora of unsightly power cords all over the cabin, but the devices need some special circuitry to support charging. Currently the only phones with built in support are the Palm Pre and Pixi, which were introduced with an inductive charger of Palm’s own design. Other devices need either a replacement battery cover which are currently only available for some Blackberry, HTC and Motorola phones. Apple’s iPhone and iPod touch don’t have replaceable batteries, so Powemat has devised a case with the needed circuitry.

GM will start offering the Powermat as a factory installed option for the Volt and other models in 2012 with pricing to be announced later.