Electronic Design
Ford Strives For PEV/Gas Parity In Its Transit Connect Light Trucks

Ford Strives For PEV/Gas Parity In Its Transit Connect Light Trucks

Ford invited me to test drive its “Transit Connect” plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) urban delivery truck (Fig. 1) last week. So, come Thursday, I found myself sitting next to Praveen Cherian, a hybrid and plug-in program leader at Ford’s Sustainable Mobility Technologies Lab in Dearborn, Mich., in a cheerfully-painted Transit Connect at San Francisco Ford on Van Ness in the city. The  truck is more interesting than the drive—alas, you can’t pretend to be Bullitt when you’re driving a delivery truck during lunch hour in San Francisco—but there’s a lot to be said about the vehicle and what it implies. (Short version: This time, the electric car is here.)

The electric Transit Connect is based on Ford’s gasoline-engined Transit Connect light truck, which is a Turkish-and Romanian-built, Ford-Europe product that has been imported into the U.S. since 2004. The Transit Connect model was designed to replace Ford’s Escort Van and Fiesta Courier. The electric versions are slated to go on sale early in 2011.

This is a small panel van, with good ergonomics (Fig. 2), well suited to light delivery work or general fleet use by a plumbing or electrical contractor. The floor is low, the cargo compartment big and boxy, and the sliding doors on the sides are complemented by hinged doors at the rear (Fig. 3).

Part of Ford’s point in entering the PEV market with a light truck is fleet sales. Ford doesn’t expect commercial customers to bet the farm on new technology.  What it does expect is that the early adopters among commercial customers will be lured by low per-mile operating costs (until state and local governments figure out how to implement road-use taxes) and will build up mixed fleets of PEVs and conventional vehicles.  And in that case, what could be more natural than to stick with a common platform—Ford’s Transit Connect?

In that case, let’s compare Granny Smiths to Golden Deliciouses. The gas-powered Transit Connect has a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that delivers 136 hp through a four-speed automatic transmission. EPA rates the light truck at 22 mpg in the city and 25 on the highway.

When you buy a Transit Connect PEV, the vehicle arrives in this country configured in exactly the same way.  Then Ford’s partner, Azure Dynamics strips it all out and replaces it with a 28-kW-h lithium-ion battery pack (Fig. 4) that fits unobtrusively below the cargo deck, a 138-kW electric motor, and a Borg-Warner one-speed transmission, plus charging and motor-control electronics. The only special treatment the battery gets is liquid cooling.

If that strip-out seems bizarre, it has nothing to do with electronics and everything to do with an import-restriction law from 1962 famously called the “Chevrolet Chicken Tax.” (If you want the details, do a search on that term.)

With batteries, motors, and electronics (Fig. 5), the Transit Connect PEV has a range of around 80 miles on a charge. The charge can be applied from any 110- or 240-V outlet, and the charge time is six to eight hours.  Ford says top speed is 75 mph and specifies a maximum payload of half a ton.

What can I say about the test ride? It was sedate. Unlike Bullitt, I didn’t lose a single hubcap. Cherian said that the ride is tuned so that the PEV drives exactly like the gas-powered vehicle. The intent is to make it transparent to fleet drivers which version of the Transit Connect they are driving.

And that’s one of the two big take-aways I got from this test drive.  Recall that when Tesla first announced its Roadster, one of the points the company made was that it wanted to rid the electric car of the stigma of being a “punishment-car.” Nobody, they said, was going to have to offer up a drive in the Roadster as penance.

Today, a very few years later, nobody’s talking about penance any more; the two versions of the Transit Connect put the alternate propulsion mechanisms at parity, as far as that delivery driver is concerned.

The other takeaway, looking under the hood (Fig. 6) of the Transit Connect PEV, is that all of the elements of the drive train and electrics are essentially off-the-shelf. That’s a big difference between this PEV and the EVs of the 1990s. I’ve always been inclined to cut GM a lot of slack on that “Death of the Electric Car” business. The early EVs were, to my eye, obviously a series of beta-test platforms; the odds were against any two being exactly alike inside. There was no way the company could have provided dealer and depot with the inventory to support all possible field mods across a vehicle’s lifetime.

Now, with (getting-to-be-common) off-the-shelf parts, Ford is telling the market it’s a different story. The Transit Connect is a production vehicle, and expectations are being set for that.

(I do wish for a shorter, jazzier name, though. Maybe Ford could have a contest.)

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