The electric vehicle portion of Ford’s massive, century-old Dearborn River Rouge complex, which one executive called a “cathedral of manufacturing,” is still expanding as pressure ramps up to produce more models.
Ford now sells three all-electric models in the U.S. — the F-150 Lightning, the e-Transit van and the Mustang Mach-e — and will start building another electric pickup truck, called Project T3, in 2025, at BlueOval City, a $5.6 billion, 3,600-acre vehicle and battery mega-factory under construction in Tennessee.
BlueOval City is Ford’s largest investment in electric vehicle production to date, expected to provide about 5,700 new jobs and have the capacity to churn out at least 500,000 electric vehicles annually, according to Ermal Faulkner, the project’s site director.
The factory project has faced delays due to weather, although construction is on schedule with plans to open the plant in 2025, he said. Some supply chain delays and battery problems have also disrupted Ford’s EV production. In February, a battery fire temporarily stalled production of the F-150 Lightning.
To stay competitive, GM is producing the F-150 Lightning’s biggest rival — the new Chevy Silverado EV, an all-electric version of its best-selling pickup truck expected to be released later this year. The 4.5 million square foot factory near Detroit, which opened in 2021 and is expanding, also will manufacture GMC Hummer EVs and the self-driving electric Cruise Origin.GM, which expects to produce a total of 600,000 electric vehicles a year, is the only major automaker that has pledged to stop selling gasoline-powered cars around the world by 2035.
The EV wars: Fierce competition for car buyers
Economists are increasingly seeing growing competition among U.S. and overseas automakers in the EV market. That includes everything from sourcing necessary battery materials to offering competitive pricing for new models. Last year, U.S. customers bought more than 800,000 all-electric vehicles, nearly doubling from 2021 and totaling about 6% all vehicle sales.
Competition remains fierce as legacy automakers try to catch up to Tesla, which still dominates the market with two-thirds of all electric vehicle sales and the nation’s two top-selling models. Tesla has car assembly plants in the East Bay city of Fremont, as well as in Texas, Germany and China, and has invested in a $6.2 billion lithium-ion battery cell gigafactory in Nevada, with $3.6 billion more expected.
In response to Tesla slashing its prices in January for some of its models by 20%, Ford reduced the price of its Mach-E by up to $5,900.
Still, Ford and other legacy automakers like GM continue to trail behind in sales, although in the first three months of the year, GM did outsell Ford in electric cars by nearly two-to-one.
Ford’s automotive engineers are trying to change that.
Just five miles from the electric vehicle manufacturing plant in Dearborn, teams of engineers behind the glassy, reflective exterior of Ford’s world headquarters are racing to design more efficient and lighter-weight batteries. Their mission: To reduce the high upfront price tag of its electric models.
They’re rethinking battery chemistry and the components they use to hold the battery. The new batteries are one of the most important technologies of the clean energy future, said Charles Poon, the company’s director of electrified systems engineering.
Ford’s new strategy involves creating alternatives to batteries made with expensive nickel, cobalt or manganese, which are in high demand. Instead, the automaker is developing new, cheaper technology to incorporate more batteries made of lithium-iron-phosphate. Both Tesla and VW have announced that it will be the go-to for their standard-range EVs in U.S. and European markets.
Ford also is trying to replace heavy materials in its 1,600-pound battery pack without compromising the power output. The goal is to make future batteries more energy-dense, lighter and cheaper, Poon said.
“We’re working on it super hard,” Poon said. “We have new hardware technology, chemistry design and battery cell design to increase overall acceptance.”
Poon said the new lithium-iron-phosphate batteries would be far less expensive, which will yield vehicles that are more affordable than existing models. Reducing battery costs is critical because the high cost of electric vehicles is a major barrier to consumers. The average price of an electric car as of February was $58,385 — about $9,600 more than the average car — although it dropped from about $65,000 last year. Lower-end fully electric cars start around $27,500.
Teaming with Chinese battery companies
Rob Williams, a maintenance and engineering manager at the Rouge Electric Vehicle Center, said battery production delays have been one of the assembly line’s biggest challenges.
Access to critical battery minerals poses significant barriers to meeting California’s EV requirements, said Muehlegger of UC Davis. Ford also had to halt production in 2022 due to a computer chip shortage, and he said the industry still hasn’t recovered from supply chain disruptions it faced during the pandemic.
“If we are moving very quickly toward a world in which a high fraction of the new car fleet is going to be electric vehicles and not conventional vehicles, there’s a tremendous amount of battery capacity that needs to be created,” he said.
“There will be a lot of pressure to innovate in this industry. But how quickly the industry is able to innovate — and how quickly the industry shifts away from battery technologies that it’s using now to two new battery technologies that we haven’t discovered yet — it’s hard to know.”
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