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Ford Shows Off Hybrid Reliability

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author photo by Jean Halliday July 2011

As Ford Motor Co. readies five new, electrified vehicles for North America, the automaker wants to build street credibility for its existing hybrid models. At an event for the media, the automaker made several comparisons of its hybrid performance and consumer acceptance to segment leader Toyota.

Chuck Gray, chief global engineer of Ford's hybrid and electric vehicle group, said that consumers who use smaller electronics with batteries may have concerns about the performance of hybrid batteries in cars. But of the almost 43 million battery cells the automaker has tested or put in customers' vehicles to date, only five cells experienced failure.

That means the odds of someone being struck by lightning twice is about the same as the 8.5 million-to-one odds of having a failure with one of its hybrid battery cells.

Ford has produced some 190,000 hybrids to date, Gray noted. "With nearly 190,000 produced, we have zero motor failures."

The Ranger was Ford's first hybrid, arriving in 1998 with a hefty, 45-pound nickel-metal-hydride battery. The Escape Hybrid suv went on the market in 2004; the Fusion Hybrid sedan in 2009 and Lincoln MKZ Hybrid suv in 2010. All three of those current models now use Ford's second-generation, high-voltage nickel-metal-hydride battery, which are 23% lighter than the first version.

The automaker used real-world results as part of its persistent testing of the battery's performance and durability. Ford's hybrid taxi fleet logged more than 80 million miles in California alone over the past decade - more than quadruple the number of miles logged by the Toyota Prius.

Yellow Cab in San Francisco first added Ford hybrids to its fleet in fall 2004, with 10 Escapes, said Hal Mellegard, assistant manager of the taxi outfit. He said the reliability and fuel savings have been so surprising that now about half his fleet is Ford Escape Hybrids.

At the event, Ford showed off these durable parts of one of Yellow Cab's Escapes, which had racked up some 260,000 miles of usage. Part of Ford's findings about its battery cell durability were based on records from Yellow Cab.

Gray said he drove the taxi before its engine was dismantled and was very pleased with the way it performed. "Taxis are a very tough test bed for an automotive product because of the severe mileage and stop-and-go traffic."

Gray also noted that Consumer Reports ranked Ford's Fusion Hybrid as the most reliable sedan - hybrid or conventional gas model. And, owners gave the Fusion a 91% "overall vehicle quality" score vs. 80% and 71% for the Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima hybrids, respectively.

Toyota has been the hybrid-car leader, with its Prius leading the way after its U.S. debut in 2000. In April, Toyota announced it had sold its one-millionth Prius in this country.

But the image of the Prius has taken a few hits via several recalls, the first in fall of 2009 and two this year- the latest in early June.

For its next-generation of electrified vehicles, Ford is moving from heavier nickel-metal-hydride batteries to even lighter, more powerful lithium-ion batteries. The first one arrives next year in the C-Max line.

"We are looking at less cost and less weight" for the new battery pack, Gray said.

Ford's Bob Taenaka, hybrid battery technical leader, said the automaker is targeting a 10-year, 100,000-mile target of durability for the new battery system.

Ford is relentlessly testing, comparing various battery cells against one another and picking the best. Even after the testing is done "we take it apart to see how it changed."

Before joining Ford a decade ago, Taenaka helped engineer the probe battery for Galileo spacecraft, which traveled 2.4 billion from earth to Jupiter.

While there are some similarities in battery development and testing for space and automotive, Taenaka said Ford only has a few minutes to test a hybrid battery system after a new model comes off the line, compared to the typical several weeks for the space battery cell. "So you need a robust manufacturing process to test it (for autos)."

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Ford Shows Off Hybrid Reliability - Autotrader