DEARBORN, MI – Ford Motor Co. has set an ambitious goal to reduce the cost associated with its hybrid-electric vehicle program 30% by 2012, a top engineer says.

That cost cut is incremental to the 30% already taken out of the program since Ford’s 2004 launch of its first HEV, the ’05 Ford Escape Hybrid, says Nancy Gioia, Ford’s director of hybrid-electric vehicle programs.

Between the Escape Hybrid’s debut and this year’s introduction of the ’10 Ford Fusion Hybrid “every element of the hybrid system was touched and affected,” Gioia tells Ward’s during a product event here.

“It was both technology- and architecture-driven, whether it was the high-power electronics, the actuators, the motors, the sensing elements or the battery system, itself. We’re going to see that same kind of effort again,” she says of the march toward 2012.

Gioia cites Ford’s upgraded cooling system as an example of how expenses can be shaved. Chillers cooled the original Escape Hybrid’s battery packs, whereas the Fusion Hybrid’s packs are air-cooled. “That took out a chunk of cost,” Gioia says.

One potential hurdle still to be overcome is the anticipated switch from nickel-metal hydride batteries to more energy-dense lithium-ion packs. Gioia says she expects Ford’s next-generation HEVs to Li-ion batteries, noting the auto maker and its supplier partners already are on guard against price hikes.

“We’ve made it real clear (to our suppliers) the cost has to be equal or less than the outgoing nickel metal,” she says, “and they’re working with us on that.”

Ford engineers will gain some valuable experience with Li-ion batteries when the Ford Transit Connect battery-electric vehicle launches next year. That will be followed in 2011 by the arrival of the Focus-based BEV car.

However, the powertrain development for these two vehicles will be conducted largely by Smith Electric Vehicles U.S. Corp. and Magna International Inc. Plans also call for bringing next-generation hybrids and a plug-in hybrid EV to market in 2012.

Gioia says the transition from NiMH battery chemistry to Li-ion has inherent benefits. “(Li-ion) cells are smaller, so you have greater energy density per cell, and you can get away with fewer cells, so that’s less material and that helps,” she says.

“But how do you offset all of the development costs that went into (the batteries) and amortize that? We’re working with our supplier partners, and we have very clear targets and objectives. We’re pretty confident we’re going to get there.”

Meanwhile, Gioia questions a 2008 study by William Tahil, the founder of Meridian International Research, a technology consultancy in Martainville, France, that claims there are insufficient amounts of lithium to support plans by global auto makers to increasingly electrify their fleets.

According to the study, “realistically achievable lithium carbonate production will be sufficient for only a small fraction of future plug-in electric vehicle and electric-vehicle market requirements.”

The demand from the portable electronics sector “will absorb much of the planned production increases in the next decade,” it says.

Additionally, the study says, the planned mass production of lithium carbonate “is not environmentally sound” and will “cause irreparable damage to ecosystems that should be protected and that Li-ion propulsion is incompatible with the notion of the ‘green car.’”

Gioia says Ford has conducted its own evaluation of the situation. “There is every indication there is sufficient global supply of lithium for some time to support not only the automotive industry, but the utility industry,” she says.

“Many of our supplier partners are looking at nano technologies to further reduce the magnitude of different types of materials you can use. There’s a lot of good science going on.”

bpope@wardsauto.com