IMAGE: ETHANOL HYBRID
Win McNamee  /  Getty Images
Ford's Escape Hybrid E85 research vehicle went on display Wednesday at the Washington Auto Show.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/25/2006 4:01:57 PM ET 2006-01-25T21:01:57

Ford Motor Co. on Wednesday raised the stakes on hybrid technology, unveiling the first such vehicle that runs on an ethanol mix.

Ford was showing off the Escape Hybrid E85 at the Washington Auto Show, stating that the vehicle operates on a blend of gasoline and up to 85 percent ethanol, a corn-based additive that is cleaner than fossil fuel. The promise, Ford said, is a vehicle that uses domestic energy and reduces emissions tied to global warming.

“This innovative research program could lead to breakthroughs to significantly reduce our nation’s dependence on imported oil while also helping to address global climate change,” Anne Stevens, a Ford executive vice president, said in a statement.

Some tinkerers have experimented with ethanol in existing hybrids, but no hybrid carmaker has endorsed the use of a mix that’s mostly ethanol. Even Ford, in its statement, noted that it was still working on vapor and combustion issues tied to using ethanol in a hybrid.

Toyota, which makes the bestselling Prius hybrid, said its hybrids are designed to run only on a normal fuel formula. Some areas use up to 10 percent ethanol and that’s fine, said Toyota spokeswoman Cindy Knight, but “the Prius is definitely not designed to run on E85” and doing so “would void the warranty.”

‘Go as far as we want’
The Escape Hybrid E85 is not currently slated for production, and Ford did not provide any mileage estimates.

The company did say it could quickly resolve technical issues and produce the vehicle, but that greater government incentives were needed to place more ethanol pumps around the nation, make more ethanol, and encourage consumer demand.

“If the government and the infrastructure is there, the technology is there today to go as far as we want to go with this,” Stevens said.

Ford, which outlined a major restructuring plan Monday, has delved deeply into hybrid vehicles. In 2004, it introduced the first hybrid sport utility vehicle, the Escape Hybrid, and is expected to produce 250,000 hybrids a year by the end of the decade.

The nation’s No. 2 automaker plans to produce 250,000 ethanol-capable vehicles this year, including the Ford F-150 pickup truck, Ford Crown Victoria sedan, the Mercury Grand Marquis and the Lincoln Town Car. Known as flexible-fuel vehicles, they have been around for years, though most owners don’t realize it or don’t have easy access to ethanol.

Ford and General Motors in recent months have stepped up their advertising campaigns for the vehicles. And Ford alone has put 1.5 million flexible-fuel vehicles on U.S. roads in the last decade.

Pros, cons
Backers of ethanol say it’s a clean-burning fuel that helps Midwest farmers while reducing the nation’s dependence on foreign oil and cutting greenhouse gas emissions tied to global warming.

But critics say the fuel is a waste of $3 billion a year in state and federal subsidies and question whether ethanol takes more energy to make than it produces.

That energy question could be answered Thursday when the journal Science publishes a research paper on the issue.

Ford said the technology offers real potential, estimating that oil imports could be reduced by about 140 million barrels a year if 5 percent of the U.S. vehicle fleet were powered by hybrids using the E85 ethanol fuel instead of gasoline.

The automaker said ethanol-fueled hybrids could also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, estimating the vehicle would produce about 25 percent less carbon dioxide by using the combination fuel.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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