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Ford (NYSE: F ) released some details about the launch of its upcoming Focus Electric the other day, and for better or worse, the Blue Oval is taking a somewhat tentative approach to joining the electric-car maybe-revolution.
Ford says that the Focus Electric, an all-electric version of the brand-spankin'-new Focus compact, won't debut until late 2011, nearly a year after Nissan's Leaf makes its appearance on these shores. And even then, sales of the electrified Ford will be limited to several urban markets.
For a company that has pushed forward so aggressively in recent years, one that strives to be seen as an environmentally aware innovator, late 2011 seems a bit late to the party. Is it wise for Ford to wait?
The list of automakers preparing to launch electric vehicles in the United States has grown quite a bit recently. While the Leaf and General Motors' (NYSE: GM ) not-exactly-a-hybrid Chevy Volt will start shipping momentarily, suddenly there are quite a few more on the way:
- Chrysler parent Fiat is bringing an all-electric version of its 500 here, but not until 2012.
- Mitsubishi will start rolling out a small electric commuter car in the United States sometime late next year.
- Honda (NYSE: HMC ) , long seen as an electric-car skeptic, has finally announced that it will produce an electrified version of the popular Fit, to arrive here in 2012.
- Toyota (NYSE: TM ) will launch an electric version of its RAV4 SUV, the first fruit of its partnership with Tesla Motors (Nasdaq: TSLA ) , sometime in 2012.
What do all of those announcements have in common? The day the vehicle will arrive at dealers is at least a year away. And even Nissan is rolling the Leaf out in phases, starting with just a few regional markets, and in tiny volumes at first.
Simple: Nobody really knows whether they'll sell.
The electric-car conundrum
Sure, they'll sell somewhat -- GM and Nissan should have no trouble meeting their modest first-year sales goals, and a few governments and General Electric (NYSE: GE ) have announced that they'll be making fleet purchases of electric vehicles. But will they sell in genuine mass-market numbers? Will Joe and Jane Average trade their SUVs in for a battery-operated eco-mobile?
Yeah, I'm skeptical too.
Here's the dilemma: Developing these cars and tooling up to produce them costs big bucks. And they're a shaky proposition: They're expensive for what they are, and most electric autos aside from Tesla's six-figure Roadster have ranges of 100 miles or less. But costs will come down and ranges will get longer as battery-makers scale up and develop better technology. That'll happen as investments increase, and that'll happen as more electric cars find buyers.
Given all that, it's not hard to see why Ford, like most of its competitors, is taking a bit of a wait-and-see attitude. This is one corner of the auto market where ramping up slowly makes a lot of sense.
Ford's launch plan
Ford has chosen 19 urban markets to participate in the Focus Electric's sales debut, and the company said in a statement that the markets were chosen based on "commuting patterns, existing hybrid purchase trends, utility company collaboration, and local government commitment to electrification."
Limiting the initial rollout to places such as San Francisco and Boston obviously makes a lot of sense, particularly if your goal is to keep volumes (and sales goals) modest at first: Go where the likely buyers are! If electric vehicles don't take off in these kinds of markets, they're not going to take off anytime soon.
In truth, all-electric vehicles are likely to remain niche products for a while, even if they are successful. The electric-car revolution, if it happens, won't happen overnight, or even in the next decade. That's still a big "if," and in that light, Ford's wait-and-see rollout makes an awful lot of sense.