Ford’s Electric Future: An exclusive interview with Ford’s EV Boss

By Aadi Shiv Malhotra (‘21)

When Henry Ford revealed the Model T in 1908, he wanted the automobile to be affordable, simple to operate, and durable. The Model T was one of the first mass-produced cars allowing Henry Ford to achieve his dream of creating a universal car. Since then Ford has become one of the largest and most influential automakers in the world, selling millions of cars each year. Now, in 2021, Ford has set its sights on the new frontier – electric vehicles – as evidenced by its $22 billion investment into electric cars through 2025 to electrify its lineup. This investment has already started paying off with the successful launch of the Mustang Mach-E and the future launch of an electric F-150. Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down (virtually) with Darren Palmer, Ford’s General Manager of Battery Electric Vehicles and the Global Product Development Director of Team Edison which is responsible for the Mustang Mach-E. Over our 1 hour sit down we talked about the Mach-E, Ford’s electric future, as well as the shift in Ford’s working culture caused by the Mustang Mach-E.

Note: Interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Aadi Shiv Malhotra: Hi Mr. Palmer, thank you so much for meeting with me today!

Darren Palmer: That’s all right, thank you. I think it’s important to talk to the younger generation who I hope will be enjoying these products. And I hope that this type of product we are making will resonate more with your peers and yourself. It’s important to me and we are busy, but not too busy for you. 

ASM: Well I certainly hope so too! Just before we start the formal interview, I would like to share some backstory regarding my relationship with Ford. When I used to live in India, we used to have a Ford Figo and when we moved here we bought a Ford Escape, the car I still drive today. In my room, back there, you can see a model of a Mustang GT.

DP: I can see that! So I spent a lot of time in India, you may not know, in Sanand and Chennai and I was in charge of small cars for Ford, at that time. I worked from out of Europe, in Germany. I did some of those small cars. I did the EcoSport over there and the Ford Ka+ and I launched that car there in Sanand and it was the first car we ever made in India and delivered to Europe. Germans, which you may know, are very fussy about their quality, and I worked with the Indian team there and it was a big pride point to do that. They just wanted to learn and were one of the most wonderful teams I worked with. And if you are willing to learn, you will learn! Thats what happened and we launched that car and I was sharing that car with the press in Germany and I walked them around the car and pointed to the quality: “Look at the door panel fix in this car”, “look at the quality of how the door shut”. It was a simple little car but it was very good and sold one-and-a-half times what was expected, so yeah I had a great experience in India while working there. It was fantastic, really nice to work with people that were motivated to learn.

ASM: Well then, let’s get going! My first question pertains to Ford’s first electric car, the Mustang Mach-E. Congratulations on the launch of that! The car represents a fundamental shift for Ford, moving from gasoline to electric power. The car being called a Mustang raised a lot of questions as the Mach-E is different as not only is it an electric car but a crossover. So was the decision to use the Mustang brand to persuade buyers, such as hardcore lovers of internal combustion engine cars, into becoming electric car lovers?

DP: Right, so, you pick up on a very important point about this. We looked at the market, and said what would drive people to electric cars, what will make them want electric cars. What should we do, where should we play, and how should we win? Shall we just make eco-electric cars for people and hope they want to buy them or should we do something different? So what we decided early on, and all of our cars are going to be this now, you have to show the people why they want an electric car. That’s how you get the early majority. Getting the heart as well as the head because electric cars have been around for a little while and have only reached 1%, so it was not a huge takeup in the market yet. We believe that the technology has just come to the point where the cost and the performance can be acceptable to make the cars for the early majority. That’s the key. And when we said that we want to drive the takeup of electric cars, Ford is about democratizing technology and bringing it to everybody, not just the privileged few and we are going to make cars that people have as ‘must-have’. 

ASM: Yes, it is very important to have these new technologies available to a general large crowd to drive rapid adoption.

DP: Right, we have been making electric cars for decades and it just was not the right time for them to take-off yet, but we have been making hybrids and electrics for decades. Our hybrids are still running as taxis in New York, hundreds of thousands of miles on.

Image Credit: Detroit News

So it is not our first time, it is just the first time, it is a ground-up, fully designed electric from the base up not shared with gasoline. So that’s what is relevant for it. We decided that it had to be something that made people want it. We looked at which is the popular segment for people and it turns out that the medium-sized SUVs is a superhot segment. Hundreds of thousands of sales just for us alone and this segment suits electric cars with the battery density that’s available, as the slightly uplifted car with that thicker floor, suits that style well. So you put that together and we decided to do a sporty SUV. Then we thought, what brands do we have that are interesting to people? We looked at what the performance could be and when we put the two together, we saw that this car could have the performance at the top end of what a Mustang can do; I will tell you more about that later but the performance is extraordinary. We put that together with the attributes that electric can give and we can make something that is emotional. That is where it came together and we said we want to make an emotional electric vehicle that is a got-to-have. But we wanted it to be authentic to Ford, not somebody else’s strategy. Now, saying that, we know the customer. The customer is a more technologically aware customer, they are younger, and they are more affluent than a lot of our current customers. We know that, we spoke to them, and we met with them from all over the world. And so we had to make a car that was very technologically advanced. They demanded that. But we gave it the flavor of Mustang everywhere, which means in the end, it makes it an emotional electric car. And arguably one of the first emotional electric cars and so that is why we chose it. You will see it later, we deliver that as with incentives included, we deliver an emotional, sporty, SUV for $35,000, available now.

ASM: That is indeed a great achievement.

DP: Yes, nobody has done that. People talk about it but they never did it. Furthermore, 80% of those cars are equipped with full hands free driving. There will be a software update happening soon to do that. That’s why I talk about the democratization of technology that Ford brings. Other brands have brought that technology, but they are not on 80% of the cars and they are not included lower down in the range, especially. But that’s the reason we went to Mustang and SUVs as it is the hottest segment and we wanted to make an emotional electric vehicle. It is a controversial decision but it has turned out to be an absolutely excellent decision. The car has won Edmunds Luxury EV of the year, a very coveted award and it has also won the North American Utility of the Year in any category, even gas. It shows that the decision to tie the car to the Mustang has made a car that is more emotional and appealing to people.

Image Credit: Ford Media Center

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