Ford, utility join to promote plug-in vehicles

Automaker and Southern California Edison plan to announce a "joint initiative" Monday; few details available.
Written by Reuters , Contributor
Ford Motor and power utility Southern California Edison will announce an unusual alliance on Monday aimed at clearing the way for a new generation of rechargeable electric cars, the companies said.

Ford Chief Executive Alan Mulally and Edison International Chief Executive John Bryson are scheduled to meet with reporters at Edison's headquarters in Rosemead, Calif., the companies said.

The two chief executives will announce a "joint initiative" that represents a first-of-its-kind tie-up between a major automaker and a major utility in the area of "plug-in" hybrid vehicle technology, representatives of both companies said.

Further details were not immediately available, but environmental advocates said the tie-up showed the momentum building for developing rechargeable hybrid vehicles as a way to reduce oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

Environmental advocates, particularly in California, have been pressing automakers to roll out such plug-in vehicles that would be capable of running on electricity for short distances and recharging at a standard electric outlet.

"I think they're all realizing that the handwriting is on the wall," said Sherry Boschert, a plug-in vehicle advocate and author.

Southern California Edison, which supplies power to some 13 million people in the area around Los Angeles, has been a vocal advocate for the development of electric vehicles and proposed tax incentives and rebates to speed their development.

SCE has said that its existing power-generation facilities would be capable of supplying millions of vehicles if they were recharged at night when demand is low.

Experimental technology being tested in Northern California on a small fleet run by Web search giant Google also allows parked plug-ins to transfer stored energy back to the electric grid, opening a potential back-up source of power for the system in peak hours.

Ford became the first American automaker to introduce a hybrid vehicle when it released the Escape in 2004.

But faced with declining U.S. market share, Ford later backed off ambitious sales targets for hybrids and was criticized by environmental advocates for having lost momentum in the race to develop alternatives to combustion engines.

In June, an executive for Ford said it was developing new hybrid vehicles but saw deep-seated engineering problems with plug-in vehicles.

Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr., who led the automaker until September, said last month that he regretted that Ford had not moved faster to seize the lead in addressing environmental concerns.

Led by Toyota Motor's Prius, the current generation of hybrid vehicles uses batteries to power the vehicle at low speeds and in stop-and-go traffic, delivering higher fuel economy.

General Motors has already begun work this year to develop its own plug-in hybrid car, designed to use little or no gasoline over short distances.

GM showed off a concept version of the Chevrolet Volt in January and has set 2010 as a target for production.

Analysts have said pending legal and regulatory changes could speed the adoption of hybrid technology.

The U.S. Senate last month approved sharp increases in fuel economy standards and is considering a package of tax credits for consumers who purchase plug-in vehicles and the companies that make them. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama is one of the sponsors of that legislation.

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