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Automakers Plan to Turn Gas-Guzzlers into Green Machines

Ford and Tata will accelerate EV sales by swapping gas engines for electric ones.

On day two of the Geneva Motor Show, automakers displayed more creative means of developing electric vehicles (EVs), despite the industry-wide cash crunch. On Monday, it was PSA Peugeot Citroën unveiling a partnership with Mitsubishi to build a Peugeot version of the i-MiEV–a battery-powered microcar that Mitsubishi is preparing to launch in Japan this summer.

Ratan Tata presenting Tata Motors’ Indica Vista EV at Geneva.

Yesterday, Ford Motor and India’s Tata Motors showed off EVs that they plan to push to market quickly by literally swapping the engine and fuel tank out of petroleum-powered vehicles and popping in batteries and electric motors.

Ford displays an especially low-budget, low-risk approach with its BEV (battery EV) Tourneo Connect concept vehicle, a five-to-eight-passenger van with a 160-kilometer range. The BEV Tourneo Connect rolled off a Ford assembly line in Turkey as a conventional truck and was then reengineered in the U.K. by electric-truck producer Smith Electric Vehicles. Smith was happy to do it because this has long been a key part of its business plan.

In fact, Smith dates back to the 1920s, making it the world’s oldest continuous producer of EVs. For most of that time, the company produced clunky, limited-range trucks propelled by lead-acid batteries. (“Like a battleship” is how its media-relations manager Dan Jenkins put it in Geneva.) Recently, Smith has gone upscale, incorporating lithium batteries to boost range and loading them into Ford trucks to produce a vehicle of much higher quality. Ford’s role is simply selling the trucks to Smith, and then buying back the gasoline engines and other parts that Smith yanks out.

The BEV Tourneo Connect could make the Ford-Smith relationship much more interesting. Ford and Smith announced a partnership last month under which Smith will expand beyond Europe by making a commercial EV version of the Tourneo for sale in the U.S. under the Ford brand. And with the BEV concept vehicle, Smith has now completed crucial engineering for a passenger version that Ford hopes to produce.

The main engineering challenge was getting the batteries out of the interior of the vehicle: Smith’s first adaptations of Ford trucks carried a suitcase-size lithium battery module in the truck’s cargo bay. In contrast, the BEV Tourneo Connect breaks its battery into three to four modules that can squeeze into the exterior compartment vacated by the fuel tank.

Tata, meanwhile, is presenting a 200-kilometer-plus-range battery-powered version of its Indica sedan at Geneva. Tata ships Indica frames from India to Norway, where its technology partner (and partial subsidiary) Miljøbil Grenland adds lithium batteries codeveloped with Canada’s Electrovaya and a motor and controller from TM4 (a subsidiary of Canadian utility Hydro-Quebec). Tata Group chairman Ratan Tata announced yesterday that the Indica Vista EV goes on sale in Norway in September.

Both EVs should sell in the thousands, according to their backers–at least in European countries such as the U.K. and Norway, where EVs benefit from high gas prices, generous government incentives, and relatively high environmental consciousness.

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