After investing roughly $1 billion to overhaul a Ford F150 truck factory in Wayne, MI, the Ford Motor Co. (NYSE: F) has begun to introduce a new generation of electric and hybrid electric automobiles in the United States.

Ford has targeted San Diego as a key beachhead for the initial commercial rollout of its all-electric car, following in the tire tracks of the Nissan Leaf, Toyota Prius plug-in, and others already working in this area with the regional utility, San Diego Gas & Electric.

With so much expected EV traffic, it can be hard to stand out from the rest of the pack, so Ford intends to differentiate itself in a couple of ways, according to Mike Tinskey, Ford's manager of global vehicle electrification and infrastructure.

"What's a little different, maybe, from some of the other approaches is that we are looking at our whole vehicle portfolio, our global vehicle platforms, and putting electrification where we think it makes sense," Tinskey told me. "What that really means is that we'll take a high-volume vehicle, like the Ford Focus, which is [being] offered in different power trains -- gasoline and diesel -- and we will also offer an electric version."

In other words, Ford is making the Focus -- a compact, or "C" class model -- the centerpiece of its global strategy for electric cars. Tinskey says Ford already sells more than 2.6 million versions of the Focus around the world, enabling the company to use its existing economies of scale to greatest advantage. The company plans to produce five all-electric or hybrid-electric vehicles in its North American market by 2012 and European markets by 2013.

"We expect San Diego to be one of our key markets from multiple standpoints," Tinskey says. "Historically, San Diego has been one of the top markets for hybrid EVs." One reason: San Diego's mild climate is not as taxing on EV batteries as colder climates. "It's just the way the utility and municipalities out there are embracing electric vehicles," Tinskey says. "San Diego Gas & Electric has put some pretty innovative programs in place there to support electrification."

In addition to San Diego, Ford is planning initial launches of its electric lineup in 18 other U.S. cities, including all the cities where Xconomy covers innovation -- Detroit, New York, San Francisco, Boston, and Seattle.

Ford introduced its all-electric Transit Connect light commercial delivery vehicle, which has about an 80-mile range, in the U.S. about five months ago, Tinskey said. The company plans to roll out its all-electric Focus in the U.S. during second half of this year and in Europe next year. Two next-generation hybrid electric vehicles and a plug-in hybrid electric are set to follow in the U.S. and Canada in 2012 and Europe in 2013.

To Ford's Tinskey, a key innovation involves the way Ford has retooled its Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, MI. "When that Focus is being built at the assembly plant, the gasoline version is running on the same production line as the electric version," Tinskey says. So a dozen gasoline-powered cars might follow a dozen battery-powered cars on the same assembly line. "That gives us the flexibility so we can tool up a single line and produce multiple variants of the Focus on that line."

Tinskey says Ford plans to produce the bulk of its C-sized vehicles and the majority of its electric vehicles for the U.S. and Canada at the Wayne plant. "It has the largest solar array in the state of Michigan installed on its rooftop," Tinskey says. "Most of the equipment that moves all of the parts and vehicles around the plant will be all-electric as well. So it's a bit of a showcase for the company."

Ford plans to introduce the same concept in Europe, where Ford also makes a diesel-powered version of the Focus. Tinskey says the all-electric Focus will be manufactured in Spain, although development is several months behind the U.S., and the company has not yet announced where in Spain it plans to make its C series vehicles. "But they will be producing the same vehicles, and they'll use the same content when they build the Focus electric, gasoline, and also the diesel."

By using the Focus as a "technology platform," Tinskey says Ford can keep its costs as low as possible for the all-electric Focus, because all the parts and components except the electric drive-train are standard for other versions of the Focus.

"The real key to getting these technologies adopted is price, or cost," Tinskey says. "We think this is one way we can get there. Some of our competitors take a different approach, where they're doing dedicated lines for their electrified products. So it's really a different strategy. We think it offers just what we're looking for, which is the ability to leverage our global scale and give us the flexibility we want."

Ford also seeks to differentiate itself by developing and deploying its own charging infrastructure.

"The charging station industry is quickly and rapidly evolving," Tinskey says. "One of the things that we're seeing, just like you should see in any technology, is that faster and faster charging is going to be attractive."

Where some of the first electric vehicles use a 3.3-kilowatt charger that takes about 8 hours to fully charge a depleted electric car, Tinskey says Ford has designed its electric Focus for a larger charger that is 6.6-kilowatts, meaning the pipe is twice as big. "So we charge in just over three hours from a completely depleted battery to fully charged. So we had to go off and find a charge station that can mount on a customer's wall and provide that kind of power."

After screening more than a dozen suppliers to develop a charging system for Ford electric vehicles, Tinskey says Ford selected Leviton, a Melville, NY-based electric parts supplier with a design shop about 23 miles south of San Diego, in Chula Vista, CA. "Those guys in Chula Vista are just incredible, they've got some great capabilities," Tinskey said.

He adds that the Ford/Leviton EV charger will be the industry's first 32-amp EV charger, which will require a 240-volt line and a 40-amp circuit. Tinskey says a key advantage of the Ford/Leviton charger is that it can be plugged into a standard 240-volt electric outlet, the type of outlet typically used for electric ovens and other major appliances.

The Society of Automotive Engineers has established standards for recharging plugs, making all electric vehicles designed for such "Level 2″ charging systems compatible. Still, Ford maintains that the on-board charging capability of its system has been enhanced, enabling its EVs to soak up energy faster (from the same power sources) than its competitors. A Ford spokesman says, "That is what gives us the distinct advantage of half the charge time (due to the 6.6 KW charger on board the vehicle). In San Diego, those EV competitors include the Nissan Leaf, Coda EV, Prius plug-in, BMW Mini Cooper E, Chevrolet Volt, Tesla Roadster, Mitsubishi iMiEV, Aptera, Saturn VUE, BYD EV (China), and Think! EV.

Tinskey says other EV chargers are usually hard-wired into a residential or commercial power system, which means that homeowners won't be able to take their chargers with them. That's one reason why the Ford/Leviton charger and installation will be available for about $1,500 through Ford dealerships and Best Buy stores, Tinskey says, while other chargers with similar features are expected to cost about $2,000.

On the other hand, Tinskey says Ford EV owners in San Diego won't be eligible for charging systems that San Francisco-based Ecotality is providing at no cost to Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt owners under a $115 million federal grant program. Ecotality began installing its chargers two months ago under the program, which provides total funding of $230 million (when matching funds from utilities, automakers, and others are included) for nearly 15,000 charging systems in 16 cities throughout California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Tennessee, Texas, and the District of Columbia.

"Our Ford customers will be eligible for similar installations in other cities," Tinskey says. "I think we're going to be pretty competitive, though, even without the grant."

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Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can email him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call 858-202-0492

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