A Short Test Drive in the Ford Transit Connect Electric + a Few More Details

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While I was grumbling about the dearth of green automobiles and related green happenings at last week’s Chicago Auto Show, Ford—who stole the show with the most exciting green car announcements including a natural gas Transit Connect Taxi and a 30 MPG Ford Edge—provided me with an opportunity to be one of the first of the media to drive the upcoming Transit Connect Electric.

It was only a short 5 minute lap around the convention center on salted, icy downtown Chicago streets, but it felt like a very solid truck. In fact, aside from the lack of engine noise, it was an abjectly normal experience. But this is exactly what Ford is going for—making the experience of driving an electric vehicle as similar to that of a conventional vehicle as possible. Given that the Transit Connect Electric is squarely aimed at commercial fleets and businesses, that only makes sense.

And based on what I could tell from 5 minutes, if you or your drivers travel less than 80 miles per day on predetermined routes or in and around the city, the Transit Connect Electric could be exactly what the doctor ordered to either show off your business’ commitment to going green and/or saving oodles of money at the pump and maintenance department. It could truly fit into your business without anyone so much as batting an eye.

Regenerative Braking

At this point I’ve driven lots of upcoming electric cars on short test drives and one of the things I like to pay attention to is the amount of regenerative braking the engineers chose to include in the vehicle. It can range from overly harsh (the Mini E) to barely noticeable (the Nissan LEAF test mule) to user-selectable (the Mitsubishi i-MiEV). Of all of those options I prefer the user-selectable one; it affords the driver the ability to determine what style of EV driving they prefer. If you want to go whole hog and recapture as much of the “lost” braking energy as possible, you can crank it up high and never even have to use the brake pedal, but, if that feeling gives you a queasy, unsafe, out-of-control vibe, you can turn it down and it will feel almost exactly like a conventional car.

The Ford Transit Connect Electric has chosen to go with the barely noticeable regen braking scheme, but as I always do on these test drives, I point out the option of the user-selectable regen to whatever chief engineer inevitably accompanies me. On this particular trip I was accompanied by Scott Staley, one of Ford’s Chief Engineers in their research and advanced engineering department. Scott thought the user-selectable option was a great idea, and seeing that it’s essentially a minor software change, he seemed to think it might even make it in the final vehicle. So, if you see that option in there, maybe you can partially thank me.

Sale and Profit Arrangement with Azure Dynamics

After the test drive I had the opportunity to talk with Jay Sandler, Vice President of sales for Azure Dynamics. The partnership between Azure and Ford is, as far as I can tell, unique in the industry and is blazing a whole new trail. The Transit Connect body will be assembled in Turkey—as I believe all of them are. But after that, all the Transit Connect bodies that are destined to become Electrics will be shipped as an empty shell to Azure Dynamics’ as-yet-to-be-chosen “near Detroit” assembly facility where Azure will install all of the pieces that make it function.

All of the Transit Connect Electrics assembled in Michigan by Azure will be sold through Ford Dealerships, but Azure will be the seller. The vehicles will be serviced by trained EV techs at the Ford facilities, but Azure will be the warrantier–although this will likely not be a problem as EVs should have very little service required. According to Scott Staley and Jay Sandler, even though Ford’s badge is on the Transit Connect Electric, Ford will not be making money off the sale of the finished product. Azure will be buying the empty shells from Ford and making all the profit off the final product sales.

It seems like a complicated arrangement, but in order to bring the vehicle to market quickly, both Ford and Azure seemed to think that this was the best option. If they’re successful, Azure reaps the profit while Ford assumes virtually no risk yet gets the spotlight. As Ford ramps up its own vehicle electrification program over the next few years, we’ll see if Azure continues to be part of that picture.

I wonder if Ford is using the Transit Connect Electric as a test bed to see if Azure is a company worth buying. Why not? Technology companies do it all the time to speed up their research or get a lock on technology they feel is the next big thing.

 

Nick Chambers

Not your traditional car guy.