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Ford in Talks to Sell Frames for Electric Car Production : Autos: Plan with California firm could help the company meet the state's 1998 no-emissions deadline.


In the first such move among big auto makers, Ford Motor Co. disclosed Tuesday that it is in talks to sell car frames without the engines to U.S. Electricar, a Santa Rosa, Calif.-based company that converts gasoline autos to electric power.

If adopted, the plan could help Ford, the nation's No. 2 auto maker, meet all or part of California's 1998 deadline for electric cars. A key attraction is that it could give Ford credit toward meeting the tough California mandate without having to invest heavily in an assembly line to build its own electric cars.

At the same time, it would allow U.S. Electricar to sell cars at lower prices, because it would avoid the labor and other costs of removing conventional engines and drive trains before adding the electric power. U.S. Electricar could also widen its market by selling cars that have the Ford name and warranty.

"Converters are very good at low-volume products that they can do quickly and maybe more efficiently than Ford can do," said Beth Ardisana, an alternative-fuels planning specialist at Ford. The collaboration would also allow Ford to better understand the market for electric cars, she said.

"Other (auto) companies are looking at this as an alternative," said Ted Morgan, chairman and chief executive of U.S. Electricar. Morgan hopes that eventually a deal with Ford will drop his converted-car price from double that of gasoline models to just 30% above standard price.

While the cars may be cheaper for consumers, however, they would also have a more limited performance than the so-called ground-up vehicles, which are designed only to be electric.

The agreement announced Tuesday calls for Ford and U.S. Electricar to develop standards for electric car conversions, quality-control methods, customer service agreements and warranties. The companies could adopt a final sales agreement by next summer, a Ford spokesman said.

For the past 18 months, Ford has had a similar agreement with companies that convert Ford trucks to natural gas. These F-series pickups are now on sale in Texas.

As part of the larger state plan to curtail air pollution submitted Tuesday to federal authorities, California has mandated that the seven auto makers selling the most cars in California must make 2% of their 1998 California cars free of all air emissions--almost certainly electric cars--with that increasing to 10% by the year 2003.

Though U.S. Electricar would guarantee the electric components, the car would be sold under the Ford brand name, potentially expanding its market. Consumers would be more comfortable with the Ford brand name, while current federal and state rules prevent government fleets from buying cars not certified by such original manufacturers, Morgan noted.

Ford's electric-vehicle program has so far focused on the Ecostar, an adaptation of a small European delivery vehicle that has been plagued with development problems. Ford maintains that Ecostar development will continue.

But one auto industry executive said that rather than invest further in the near term in another ground-up car, Ford's proposed plan could make financial sense at this point. "For Ford, it might be the way to lose the least money initially," said the official, who declined to be named.

"The industry is searching around for the cheapest way to meet the mandate in the first few years, and the way to do it is to not build ground-up vehicles," said Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis.

Indeed, Sperling now expects that the only ground-up electric car offering the high performance of some current prototypes will be the GM Impact, a sporty two-seat car now being tested in Southern California.

GM has not yet committed itself to meeting the mandate by selling the Impact, however, and a spokesman said Tuesday that the company is still "looking at every option."

Chrysler Corp. does not plan to sell the engineless frames--called gliders in the industry--but expects to market an electric variation of its best-selling minivan.

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