Ford workers pin hopes on battery-powered truck

Unsold trucks
Auto workers say vehicles such as the Ford Ranger could be converted to run on electricity.
MPR Photo/Bob Collins

Inventor Bob Albertson of Alma, Wisconsin, has been researching and designing automotive components for decades and holds a number of patents. But Albertson says his track record was not enough to budge the skepticism he encountered when pitching his idea for an electric car to potential investors.

"I went out here two years ago to obtain funding," Albertson says. "I was telling people I could make a car that'd go 200-300 miles without a charge. Well, nobody believed me."

At the time 30 to 40 miles was all battery powered cars could muster. Today, though, electric cars that go 200 or more miles between battery charges are not only possible, there are already prototypes. A California company called Tesla Motors makes a high-speed, lithium battery-powered sports car. It's spendy--$92,000--but is drawing media attention from the likes of the New York Times and ABC News. A price tag in the six-figure range will keep Tesla's electric vehicles out of reach for most Americans. But inventor Bob Albertson maintains he can deliver battery power for the mass-market. Albertson says gas-powered vehicles already on the road can be reconfigured to run on electricity.

"We're looking at making kits available that you could retrofit, let's say a Ford Ranger, where they could take the present engine out of the car, the gas engine, and put in our kit," he says.

Albertson envisions dealerships around the region where auto workers could carry out these gas-to-electric conversions.

"We really feel this is something that will grab the eye of somebody."

Some of the strongest believers in his vision can be found in the union hall at United Auto Workers Local 789. The union office sits across the street from an 82-year-old plant that Ford plans to close next year. Nineteen-hundred people used to work there, building Ford's light truck, the Ranger. Next year, that number will fall to zero.

The UAW's Gary Muenzhuber says union leaders are excited about Albertson's plan to retrofit a Ranger with electric components and demonstrate its viability at the State Fair. The dream is to convince someone to save factory jobs by making electric Rangers from the wheels up.

"We really feel that this is something that will grab the eye of somebody. Maybe not Ford, we're just hoping we can do something to save this plant," Muenzhuber says.

But if the concept is a long shot, the plant's closing appears a sure thing. Ford lost $7 billion last year and has said it's firm in its decision to close the St. Paul plant, among others.

Albertson says even if they're not made at the existing plant in St. Paul, electric vehicles could offer a way to salvage auto manufacturing jobs somewhere in Minnesota.

But that hope will need to be reconciled with certain economic realities.

United Auto Workers local 789
From left, Bob Killeen Jr., Gary Muenzhuber and Jim Reinitz are among officials with United Auto Workers Local 789. The union hopes displaying an all-electric version of the Ford Ranger at the State Fair will generate interest in building electric vehicles in Minnesota.
MPR Photo/William Wilcoxen

Albertson and the UAW lack financing.

And analyst Dave Cole, who chairs the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan, says the industry does not seem interested.

Cole says the technical sensation of this year's International Auto Show in Detroit was a General Motors car. GM plans to produce a hybrid with a small gas engine that recharges a relatively low-cost battery pack and has a range of about 600 miles.

"Right now it looks to me like this series hybrid or plug-in hybrid with lithium batteries that are not huge but provide reasonable range -- that could be a real winner," Cole says.

Ford has already dabbled with an electric Ranger. The truck had a range of only about 65 miles and was cancelled after just a few years of production. As for efforts to preserve auto manufacturing jobs, Cole says the biggest obstacle is overcapacity, not only at Ford, but in the industry generally.

"If you look at the capacity to make cars and trucks in the world, there's capacity to make about 85 million and the sales rate is at about 65 million," Cole says. "So this overcapacity problem is a horrendous issue."

Despite the hurdles, UAW officials are moving ahead. They've been in contact with unions on the Iron Range and plan to drive the prototype Ranger from the fairgrounds to a Labor Day rally in Bovey.

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