DETROIT – The U.S. is in danger of trading its independence on foreign oil for a reliance on foreign batteries to power future electric vehicles, a top Ford Motor Co. executive warns.

“We would just be trading one problem for another,” Sue Cischke, Ford group vice president-sustainability, environment and safety engineering, tells Ward’s at the North American International Auto show here.

Cischke says America is falling behind Asia in advanced-battery technology and production, largely because the consumer-electronics industry here has been driving the development of batteries, rather than automotive.

Companies Ford works with would like to establish a battery research-and-manufacturing facility in the U.S., she says. But to do so, the U.S. government needs to contribute seed money, the same way Japan did when Toyota Motor Corp. was developing batteries for its hybrid-electric vehicles.

“That’s what helped Toyota,” Cischke says.

The lack of battery suppliers in the U.S. has forced Ford to scale back on demonstration programs, including a partnership with Southern California Edison to test a fleet of plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles.

“We could only get 20 batteries,” Cischke says of the battery supplier for the partnership, which she declines to reveal.

“We wanted a bigger program, but we were restricted because (the supplier is) building these in small scale. For them to put in a battery line they need a commitment of 50,000 vehicles, and that’s a serious financial commitment.”

President-elect Barack Obama repeatedly has said developing high-tech batteries in the U.S. is imperative to the nation’s energy security, and Cischke hopes he delivers on his promises.

“But we have to go beyond talking and make it happen,” she insists.

With gasoline at about $2 per gallon, Cischke says auto makers are concerned consumers could lose interest in hybrid and pure-electric vehicles, especially during the current global economic downturn.

“We need vision of where we are heading as a country,” she says. “I don’t think anybody believes gas will stay at $2, but we have to think, ‘is this important or not?’

“For the American public, it’s all about affordability,” Cischke adds. “If you’re losing your job, you’re not going to be able to buy a $40,000 vehicle if you can buy a $20,000 vehicle. So we have to keep the future in mind, as well as consumer needs.”

bpope@wardsauto.com