New technologies, such as plug-in hybrid-electric powertrains, could help Ford Motor Co. meet a proposed U.S. government-mandated corporate average fuel economy standard but are not the immediate answer, a top-ranking executive says.

Legislation proposed by the U.S. Senate calls for cars and trucks to meet a combined average of 35 mpg (6.7 L/100 km) by 2020.

“PHEVs could help down the road, but CAFE is all about volume,” Susan Cischke, senior vice president-sustainability, environment and safety engineering, tells Ward’s. “Hybrids today don’t really dent our CAFE, and the (government) can’t put numbers out there thinking new technologies will appear.

“Whenever we show technology like this, (government officials) say, ‘There you go,’ and bump the (CAFE) numbers up,” she says. “So we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.”

The Environmental Protection Agency lists Chrysler Group and Ford as having the worst CAFE for 2006, the most recent year for which data is available. The two auto makers averaged 19.1 mpg (12.3 L/100 km) and 19.7 (11.9 L/100 km), respectively.

If Ford and its domestic counterparts are forced to meet the current proposed CAFE standards, it will require car companies to drastically alter their U.S. product mix, Cischke says.

“What’s on the table in the Senate now is very difficult and would definitely impact mix,” she says of Ford’s truck-heavy product lineup. “We don’t even know how to reach (the proposed standard), not in a viable way. (It) would break the industry.”

As for critics who argue Ford need only look to its Japanese competitors or the European markets to meet more stringent fuel-economy standards, Cischke says such proposed solutions are not grounded in reality.

“The problem is this is a very emotional issue,” she says. “There is a lot of baggage from the past, and people think we can’t do something that our Japanese competitors did. But if we sold the same mix, our fuel economy would be the same.

“We have to make sure we’re not making up (fuel economy) numbers arbitrarily, or looking to Europe and saying, ‘Do that,’” Cischke says of the overseas market, where historically higher gasoline prices have driven consumers toward smaller, fuel-efficient cars and diesel-powered vehicles.

“People think technology will solve everything,” she says. Yet, “nobody wants to compromise by downsizing or paying more (for a vehicle). We’re all trying to thread the needle here.”

As the CAFE debate between government regulators and auto makers rages on, Ford will continue to lobby against the proposed CAFE changes.

“We’re trying to work with members of Congress,” says Cischke. “We understand our role is to improve fuel economy. But technology drives that, not just someone picking a number because it sounds good.”

Meanwhile, Ford is forging ahead with a recently announced partnership with the electric-utility Southern California Edison to test the real-world feasibility of PHEVs.

The energy company, which provides service to some 13 million people in 11 Southern California counties outside Los Angeles, will receive one modified plug-in Ford Escape Hybrid by the end of this year and up to 20 units by 2009.

Cischke, who is involved in arranging the collaboration, says Southern California Edison was chosen as a partner due to its familiarity with the region’s electrical grid system and its work with so-called “smart” houses.

“In a smart home, you can regulate your electric usage to recharge your car during off-peak hours,” she says.

Ford also is hoping Southern California Edison can help create new business models to bring the technology mainstream. One example would see electric utility companies paying some or all of the cost of the expensive lithium-ion batteries required for PHEVs, Cischke says.

“One thought is there might be a different ownership model, just like when the phone companies used to own phones,” she says. “There might be some cost you could spread over more years. We’re looking at a new way of thinking about this.”

Ultimately, battery technology will have to improve before PHEVs can become production feasible. Today’s Li-ion batteries used in PHEVs don’t provide adequate range for most motorists’ needs and are prone to overheating.

Cischke predicts PHEVs could hit the road in five to 10 years but cautions there is a lot of confusion regarding the pace of battery development.

“If you talk to battery suppliers, they say it’s right around the corner, but others disagree,” she says. “It’s a real challenge, but a lot of people are working on it. It’s all about formulations and the right chemistries and what’s possible from a durability and reliability standpoint.”