Ford’s secret mission: cheaper electric cars to woo EV holdouts

As a ‘skunk works’ unit works on creating an affordable platform, could this be a new Model T moment?

Ford’s chief executive Jim Farley has revealed the existence of a previously secret “skunk works” team within the company that is developing an affordable electric car platform to take on competition from Tesla’s much-hyped Model 2 and the influx of affordable Chinese cars.

Farley said Ford “made a bet, in silence, two years ago” to create a low-cost EV platform, and then set up this special team – inspired by the famed Lockheed “Skunk Works”, which developed some of the highest-performance aircraft in history – to do so. Farley said during Ford’s 2023 earnings press conference that the secret team had “developed a flexible platform that will not only deploy to several types of vehicles but will be a large installed base for software and services that we’re now seeing at Pro [Ford’s commercial vehicle division].

Farley pointed out that as EVs start to ramp up in general popularity, they start to run into something of a brick wall in the car market: consumers who just aren’t willing to pay a premium price for an electric car.

“As you move into the early majority customer, they are not willing to pay a significant premium for EVs” Farley said. “All of our EV teams are ruthlessly focused on cost and efficiency in our EV products because the ultimate competition is going to be the affordable Tesla and the Chinese OEMs.”

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So far, Ford has been losing quite a lot of money when it comes to electric cars. In fact, Ford’s Model E division, the bit of the company that focuses on electric cars, lost $1.5 billion (€1.4 billion) last year, which was offset by significant profits at its Pro commercial vehicles and Blue combustion-engines vehicles divisions.

Ford has said that while it expects global electric car demand to grow in 2024, it will be “less than anticipated”

In spite of such losses, Ford says it is intensifying its electric model investments. “EVs are here to stay, customer adoption is growing, and their long-term upside is central to Ford,” said John Lawler, Ford’s chief financial officer.

“The customer insights we’re getting by being an early mover in electric pickups, SUVs and commercial vehicles are invaluable – especially as we’re developing next-generation EVs that are going to surprise customers and be profitable within a year of launch. Simply ‘good’ isn’t good enough, and investments are going to projects that have credible plans to deliver their targeted returns,” Lawler said.

That means, as Farley admitted, that some model programmes could be delayed as Ford focuses its engineering and development capabilities on the vehicles that actually turn a profit, chiefly its vans and pickups. Indeed, just days before the earnings results were revealed, Ford cut some of the production of its F-150 Lightning electric pickup in response to softer customer demand.

Production of the EV pickup, which is not sold in Europe other than in Norway so far, is expected to run at 1,600 vehicles per month in 2024, roughly half of the previously planned figure. “We are taking advantage of our manufacturing flexibility to offer customers choices while balancing our growth and profitability,” Farley said. While that’s happening, production of combustion-powered Bronco SUV and Ranger pickups is actually being expanded to meet demand. Ford has said that while it expects global electric car demand to grow in 2024, it will be “less than anticipated.”

Which is potentially why the new “skunk works” EV platform is so critical. If Ford can create an affordable, attractive electric offering, at a price similar to or less than those of its conventional internal combustion models, then we could be looking at a genuine new Model T moment, with a vehicle that could possibly breach that barrier to wider EV acceptance.

Would such a model make it to Europe? It’s possible, but not necessarily likely. Ford does sell the Mustang Mach-E in Europe, which was similarly originally designed and engineered by a small team working in relative secrecy, but has recently been corralling off its European and US markets. We are still waiting for the much-delayed all-electric Explorer SUV to go on sale here, which shares a platform with various Volkswagen electric models, thanks to a tie-up between the two companies.

That MEB electric platform, which Ford is sourcing from VW, seems to be able to support more affordable models – witness VW’s plans for a €25,000 ID.2 and the recent dramatic price cuts to the ID.3 and ID.4 line-ups – but whether Ford, as a customer of VW, could find the same sorts of savings is up for debate.

Ford will also introduce an all-electric version of the Puma small crossover this year, which is based on Ford’s own platform, a development of the now-defunct Fiesta hatchback. How affordable Ford will make that Puma EV remains to be seen, but given price cuts elsewhere, the Blue Oval will have to step up to the plate with European EV affordability just as it plans to in the US.

Ford did chop as much as $5,900 off the price of the Mustang Mach-E in the US market, in order to chase Tesla’s price cuts, but those cuts were not reflected in Irish pricing. The official word from Ford Ireland is: “This announcement is specific to North America. Across Europe, we are constantly reviewing our price structure to offer the best possible price for our customers.”

Perhaps when the updated Mach-E, which will feature a cheaper-to-make lithium-iron-phosphate battery, goes on sale we shall finally see a more affordable EV Ford in this country.

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