Transportation: Ford Introduces A Line of Electric Cars—With a Twist

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Ford Focus Electric

After decades of waiting and wishing, 2011 really is shaping up to be the year of the electric car. GM’s Volt—an electric car with a gas-powered “range extender”—and Nissan’s all-electric Leaf will soon be appearing in Americans’ garages. (Ads for the cars—Nissan has the one with the polar bear—are already almost impossible to avoid.) With gas prices creeping back up over $3 a gallon, and analysts expecting oil to become more expensive as demand grows from the developing world, electric cars may be hitting the showrooms at just the right time. Far from remaining a green sideshow, electrics—from traditional hybrids to battery-powered vehicles—are becoming central to the auto industry.

Now Ford is ready to throw its hat into the ring. The second-biggest carmaker in America has been slower than GM and Nissan to embrace the electric trend, but they seem ready to change. At a press conference in New York this afternoon, Ford chairman Bill Ford Jr. introduced the company’s electric line: four different versions of its Ford Focus sedan, ranging from a conventional hybrid to the all-electric version that was driven right to Ford’s feet at the event. Ford explained that electrics would become a core part of the company’s business—not just with a single special model, but across its lines. “We’re committed to becoming a leader in fuel economy in every segment,” said Ford, the great-grandson of company founder Henry Ford. “The most immediate game changer will be electrified vehicles.”

That includes the Ford Focus Electric, the new car Ford introduced on Friday. Details were still a little sketchy on the Focus Electric, which likely won’t be delivered to North America and Europe until 2013. Ford wouldn’t say how much the car would cost, nor how many they expect to sell, nor how far the car could travel on a single charge—other than to say that it will be superior on a miles-per-gallon basis than the Volt, and would be competitive with other battery-electric vehicles. But Ford did make one boast—the Focus Electric would be recharged in three to four hours with a special wall-mounted charger, half the time it takes to power up a Nissan Leaf. And charging would be made possible with a $1499 mobile unit sold—and installed—by Best Buy, which would be 30% less than the cost for a Nissan charging station.

Still, even with the generous tax credits available for electric car owners, battery-powered vehicles are still extremely expensive—a Nissan Leaf costs over $30,000 before incentives—and limited battery life means that drivers will need to change the way they use their cars. Ford is trying to get ahead of that curve—Bill Ford talked about the smartphone apps and dashboard computer that would let drivers know where the closest charging stations were, and how long they could drive before needing a recharge. This is done graphically—butterflies appear on the dashboard display, and as long as there is a single butterfly visible, there’s a charging point within range of the car. (Why butterflies? Bill Ford said that the idea came from the butterfly effect, the idea that a single small action can create enormous change, like a butterfly flapping its wings in China and creating a storm halfway across the world. Or maybe he meant the Ashton Kutcher movie.) And for those drivers for whom the price tag or the “range anxiety” of an all-electric vehicle was simply too much, Ford would offer plug-in hybrids like the Volt, along with standard hybrids—all on the Focus line, all of which will be made at a single plant in Wayne, Michigan. “One of the key parts of our strategy is the fact that we will have a family of electric vehicles,” Bill Ford said. “The great thing is the customer will decide what we make.”

Indeed, the customers will be deciding what kind of cars the automakers sell—and if gas prices keep going up, you can expect small and electric vehicles to become that much more possible. There’s no guarantee—analysts have wondered how big the market for electrics really is, and last year hybrid sales fell 8%. But Bill Ford, for one, believes that fuel efficiency will remain important for consumers. “We have taken a point of view that gasoline prices will continue to go up,” he said. “We believe that is a fact of life.” This time, at least, the American automakers seem ready.

More from TIME on electric cars:

The Chevy Volt: GM’s Huge Bet on the Electric Car

Is This Detroit’s Last Winter?

The Charge of the Electric Brigade