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Ford Focus Fuel Cell Hybrid Vehicle.
Latest Ford fuel cell technology includes a new hybrid-configuration. Ford's most popular selling car, the Focus, serves as the current test bed.

Focus FCV: Next Step Production

An exclusive interview with John Wallace, Director, Ford's Th!nk Mobility Group.

By Bill Moore

"The Focus is the world's most popular vehicle," stated Th!nk director, John Wallace, when asked why Ford chose it as the platform on which it would develop its fuel cell drive system. "There have been over 2 million Focuses manufactured and sold, and so . . . we'd like to have a vehicle that is really a good customer pleaser.

Tipping Ford's hand ever so slightly, Wallace continued, "In addition, the Focus is sold all around the world. It is a truly a global vehicle and this would allow us to put fuel cell vehicles into Europe or Japan, and the vehicle would be supported in those countries," he explained.

He added that there was a third reason why Ford chose the Focus, a relatively small sedan rather than one of its SUVs, a strategy adapted by Toyota, Nissan and Hyundai when developing their early fuel cell test beds.

"Because [the Focus] is a small sedan, [it] represents a significant technical challenge for us. As you know, fuel cell systems right now tend to be somewhat bulky and heavy, and by going ahead and tackling how to put a fuel cell system into a car and not and not impinge upon the passenger space, we really had to do a little more work than we would have had to have done if we were putting it into an SUV or truck."

Generational Advances
EV World's editor had the chance to drive the previous generation of the Ford Focus while in Detroit last summer. That vehicle was fairly transparent in terms of its fuel cell packaging. Wallace confirmed that the newest generation, unveiled for the first time at the 2002 New York Auto Show represents a marked improvement in the state-of-the-art.

The most marked changes are the introduction of Ballard's new Mark 902 fuel cell stack, one capable of generating 85kW of electrical power, or the equivalent of 117 hp. By contrast, the production Focus is rated at 110hp. The newest Focus FCV also combines for the first a combined fuel cell-battery hybrid system, a move being emulated by other auto manufacturers including Toyota and DaimlerChrysler. As Wallace later explained, this architecture switch from relying on just the fuel cell alone translates into about a 25% improvement in overall "fuel economy" of the fuel cell stack.

The NiMH battery pack improves the performance of the vehicle while allowing the car to recapture regenerative braking energy, turning it into electricity.

"Speaking of brakes," Wallace noted, "we did add series regenerative brakes that allows us to maximize the energy recovered from the braking events."

He also explained that the new Ballard Mark 902 is modular in construction, which should improve its reliability and eventually help reduce stack costs because of improved manufacturability.

"We're very happy with the stack and we feel it's a good step along the way towards a commercializable [sic] and production vehicle. Obviously, we still have a lot of work to do."

Wallace stressed that Ford believes people are far more interested in hydrogen as a fuel cell feedstock than other potential fuels like gasoline, methanol or natural gas. These all require elaborate reformers to separate the hydrogen, adding complexity, cost, longer startup times and reduced reliability.

"We are really trying to 'focus',if you don't mind the pun, on the end goal, which is a hydrogen economy."

Ford engineers in Detroit, where development is being done, have also increased the hydrogen storage capacity of the vehicle by switching to a new 5,000 psi tank that holds 5 kilograms of hydrogen, or the equivalent of 4 gallons of gasoline. As in previous models, the tank occupies most of the trunk area. Wallace jested that there was now room for "some big fat briefcases", but probably not a set of golf clubs.

Ford's goal is to achieve a range of 200 miles or better with this version. Wallace avoided stating what the current range by saying Ford is working it way up.

Packaged in front of the tank, just behind the rear passenger seat are 180 "D" size NiMH batteries that are part of the hybrid-electric drive system. Wallace characterized the current configuration as a "medium" hybrid with the battery pack rated at about one-third the energy output of the fuel cell stack.

Hybridization won't make much difference in improving the economics of fuel cells, Wallace indicated. Its main purpose is to improve fuel efficiency. Some have speculated that by increasing the onboard battery capacity, you could reduce the size of the fuel cell stack and thus reduce the systems cost. But at present, both advanced batteries and fuel cells are significantly more expensive on a kW basis than an internal combustion engine, a topic Wallace discusses in part two of our interview. So, little is gained in reducing the size of the stack and increasing the battery pack in terms of reducing system costs.

"We are doing a lot of investigations on other ratios," he stated when talking about the amount of power contributed by the fuel cell and battery pack. "This is one of the fun things about building these vehicles is that you get to try out as an experiment and see how the characteristics change."

Overall, this newest generation of the Focus Fuel Cell Hybrid is some 400 pounds lighter than its predecessor.

"I think you'll find that the performance has improved and that this is helpful on fuel economy and it is helpful to us in trying to manage the system."

In terms of comparative performance between the conventional four cylinder Focus and the FCV Hybrid version, Wallace indicated that there is very little difference between the two. In his words, the vehicle is "very quick" off a stop with lots of torque like many electric-drive vehicles, but that it also has better performance as it accelerates. He anticipates that we'll also see better top speeds.

"Initial drives, and that's all we have right now are initial drives, indicate that this vehicle performs basically as well as the existing Focus."

A Good Approximation
This newest manifestation of the Ford Focus FCV is, in Wallace's view, a "good approximation" of what the production version of the vehicle will be like in 2004, the stated date when the car will begin very limited production.

"This is part of our engineering development program. Obviously if we find problems or issues, or can find further improvements, we'll make them, but basically what you're seeing now is what we should be delivering in 2004."

When Ford says it will begin production of the vehicle in 2004, what it means is a small number of demonstration vehicles and not mass production for the consumer marketplace. That event - - if it happens at all as we'll see in part two of the interview - - is at least a decade off in the future, maybe longer, depending on a number of technical, social and political issues.

Wallace indicated that Ford would produce approximate the same number of vehicles as announced by Honda, which has publicly stated it would produce its fuel cell vehicle in "single" digit numbers starting in 2003.

What cars will be built will be "placed in controlled situations." Wallace confirmed that some would be placed in service in California as part of the Fuel Cell Partnership there, but that others would find their way to Germany and possibly Japan. He said there's a long list of candidates.

The purpose of this cautious, careful approach is to avoid embarrassing missteps. Companies like Ford and Honda want to gather as much "real world" data on the cars as possible.

"We are a long way away from dealer showrooms for fuel cells," he stated.

CONCLUDED NEXT WEEK....

Times Article Viewed: 4155
Published: 06-Apr-2002

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