Kevin Layden is a cheerful, easygoing guy who, outwardly at least, seems impervious to the high pressures of his job: managing Ford Motor Co.'s hybrid and electrification efforts. If the stress gets to him, he doesn't show it.
And there has been plenty of stress lately. Crashing gasoline prices have dramatically slowed industry sales of battery-electric and hybrid vehicles, forcing automakers to pile on incentives to keep buyers interested. In California, for example, rebates and tax incentives knock almost 40 percent off the price of a Nissan Leaf. Toyota has scaled back production targets for the top-selling Prius.
Then there are the newer offerings from competitors, such as the upcoming Chevrolet Bolt hatchback, which, General Motors promises, can drive 200 miles on a single charge -- more than twice the range of Ford's current Focus Electric.
Rather than retrenching from electrified vehicles, Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford is doubling down, committing $4.5 billion to develop the next generation of EVs and powertrains —where plastics will play an increasing role in battery components, housings, wiring and lighter weight components to make up for the weight of battery packs. And Layden is the man who will spend a big chunk of that cash.
Layden, 53, a 30-year Ford veteran, has spent his career trying to make things work more efficiently. He's had a hand in developing many of Ford's award-winning European diesel engines as well as the trend-setting, 1.0-liter, three-cylinder engine available in the Fiesta and Focus.
Although Layden could drive any vehicle in Ford's fleet, his family runs a stable of plug-in hybrids. When he is not working, he likes to travel with family and spend time camping and hiking. Getting closer to nature, you sense, re-energizes his commitment to reduce vehicle CO2 emissions.
Layden is convinced that either through improvements in lithium ion battery chemistry or development of revolutionary technologies, power density, range and performance of electrified vehicles will continue to improve.
He spoke with Richard Truett, a staff reporter for Automotive News, a sister publication of Plastics News, in March.
Q: Is it difficult to stay enthusiastic about advancing hybrid technology when fuel prices are low and consumers are picking up their old habits of buying SUVs and pickups?
Layden: It's easy to remain enthusiastic. You have to remember, hybrids came on the scene with fuel at $1 a gallon in the United States. We've been driving the cost of the system down and driving the mpg up. In fact, today's hybrids are more economical and better performers than prior generations. Reliability and durability are a "why buy" for Ford. With [plug-in hybrid electric vehicles], we're selling better economics as well as features. People are buying because they can go 10 weeks without going to the gas station. That means less time standing in the cold or rain. The features, the reliability, the excellent driving experience and the economics are continuing to build. More to come on all of these fronts.
Q: If we are going to live in a world of cheap fuel where pickups and SUVs dominate sales, what is the best way to electrify these heavy vehicles? GM is coming out with a belt-alternator system on trucks, for example, but consumers have not valued hybrid trucks.
Layden: Ford has announced we will do a [hybrid] full-size SUV/truck by the end of the decade. We were pioneers in making great product that matched consumer needs but also came with hybrid technology. The Escape Hybrid was well-received and provided great attributes. You can bet that Ford will not disappoint anyone when we do SUV/truck hybrids. We have the technology and the experts to make a fantastic vehicle with no compromise on attributes.
Q: In December, Ford committed $4.5 billion for electrified vehicles. Can you give us a sense of how some of that money will be spent? For example, can you say some will go to fuel cells, some for research into batteries, maybe next-generation electronic continuously variable transmissions, etc.?
Layden: Ford will deliver 13 new electrified vehicles by 2020. This is the big push, delivering more and better electrified vehicles — [hybrid-electric vehicles], PHEV and BEV.
As part of this effort, we will be driving down costs of batteries, inverters and other EV components. We'll develop the next generation of the Powersplit front-wheel-drive transmission and rear-wheel-drive applications previously announced.
In addition, we will continue our research efforts, which are not included in the $4.5 billion. We continue working with our supplier partners to bring to market new battery technology, and we'll continue working with great universities, such as the University of Michigan, to search for new breakthroughs and to develop new relationships. We will continue fuel cell research and development in Vancouver with our partner, Daimler. Ford is very active in the pure science, research and development of all electrified efforts.