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Ford grows R&D in electric cars

– Ford, debuting five battery-powered models this year, is spending $135 million to design electric-drive parts and double battery testing capacity.

Ford is moving more battery research in-house and has hired 60 engineers in the last year, bringing its electric-vehicle engineering staff to more than 1,000, according to a statement last week. The moves help reduce the cost of hybrid systems by 30 percent and speed development by 25 percent, Ford said.

The goal of the new investment is to give consumers “faster access to Ford’s latest and greatest in fuel-saving technologies and vehicles,” Joe Bakaj, Ford’s vice president of powertrain engineering, said in the statement.

Ford has said hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and all-electric cars will account for as much as 25 percent of its new vehicle sales by 2020, from less than 3 percent last year. The second-largest U.S. automaker is competing in the nascent market for electrified vehicles with Toyota, General Motors, Nissan and startups such as Tesla and closely held Fisker Automotive.

Ford said it plans to hire “dozens” of additional engineers for electric-vehicle development. It’s also renaming its 285,000-square-foot advanced engineering center in Dearborn, Mich., the “Ford Advanced Electrification Center.”

Electrified vehicles accounted for 3.4 percent of the U.S. market in this year’s first half, up from 2.2 percent a year earlier, according to researcher LMC Automotive.

Hybrids fell to 2.2 percent of the U.S. market last year, down from 2.4 percent in 2010 and 2.8 percent in 2009, LMC said.

Ford, based in Dearborn, had just 4 percent of the U.S. hybrid and electric-vehicle market in the year’s first half, compared with 72 percent for Toyota, said Mike Omotoso, a researcher in Troy, Mich., for LMC. Ford’s share of the hybrid market fell from 11 percent in the first half of last year because the automaker is discontinuing the slow-selling Escape hybrid, Omotoso said.

Ford was the first U.S. automaker to sell a hybrid when it debuted a gasoline and electric powered version of the Escape sport utility vehicle in 2004. Sales of its Fusion hybrid sedan are down 22 percent this year, to 6,097, according to researcher Autodata Corp.

Ford began selling an electric version of its Focus compact car in May for $39,200. Later this year, Ford will introduce hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions of the C-Max wagon, a model coming from Europe. A new version of the Fusion hybrid is also coming this year. Production of a plug-in Fusion sedan starts at year-end.