Ford to Follow GM in Making Plug-in Battery Cells Overseas

020309_escapehybridpluginIn the latest blow to the emerging U.S. lithium-ion battery industry, Ford Motor (s f) said it’s picked the French-American joint venture Johnson Controls-Saft to supply batteries for the automaker’s first plug-in electric vehicle. Ford said today it plans to assemble the system stateside from cells produced (at least initially) at a Saft Groupe SA (s SAFT) facility in Nersac, France. Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls (s JCI), one of the world’s largest automotive battery suppliers, will design the system.

This intercontinental arrangement with the joint venture, which also supplied batteries for the Ford Escape plug-in test fleet and makes batteries for Mercedes-Benz and BMW (s BMW) hybrids, is similar to the plan General Motors (s GM) announced for the Chevy Volt last month: GM picked South Korea-based LG Chem to manufacture cells overseas for battery packs to be assembled in Michigan.

Having just secured federal bailout funds, GM took a lot of heat for sending the deal abroad. Ford and its partners seem to have paid close attention the fallout, emphasizing the red-white-and-blueness of assembling the packs in the U.S. — and drawing attention to the importance of building up domestic supply. “As U.S. vehicle manufacturers commercialize their hybrid programs,” Johnson Controls Power Solutions president Alex Molinaroli said in Ford’s release, “the industry will be best served with a qualified and robust domestic supply base.”

Ford has also left the door open to move cell manufacturing here, putting the onus on consumers to drive sales beyond the 5,000-units-per-year production level targeted for 2012. As Bloomberg reports, a spokesperson for Johnson Controls-Saft, which is run by former Ford hybrid engineer Mary Ann Wright, mentioned the possibility of building a factory in the U.S. for the cells after the five-year supply agreement expires.