Ford Gives Smith Electric a Foothold in the U.S.

Ford Motor (s F) announced today that its first electric vehicle will be based on its Transit Connect compact van. But Ford isn’t going it alone on this project, it’s working with the UK’s Smith Electric Vehicles on the electric conversion.


Part of the publicly-traded Tanfield Group, Smith Electric has already been working with Ford on electric versions of the Transit Connect in Europe, as well as the larger, full-size van, the Transit. With a range of up to 100 miles, the electric Transit Connect will roll out in the U.S. in 2010.

“Ford provides the chassis and we integrate everything else,” Dan Jenkins, spokesman for the Tanfield Group, told us. “Our IP and know-how is in the drivetrain, the battery packs, the control systems, and how all of that is integrated together, and also how it integrates with the existing vehicle systems.”

For battery power, Smith Electric signed a deal last year to buy up to $70 million worth of lithium phosphate batteries from Austin, Texas-based Valence Technology (s VLNC), but Jenkins said Smith Electric is working with a number of other battery companies as well, and no decision has been made on what batteries we’ll see in the U.S. vehicles.

There could already be a battle brewing over where Smith Electric will set up shop in the U.S. Last week, Tanfield said it formed a U.S.-based venture, called, appropriately enough, Smith Electric Vehicles US, and has received “firm expressions” from two states for funding support for a new facility. Tanfield already has operations in the U.S. through its aerial work platform unit, but this will be the first U.S. plant for Smith Electric. Operations are expected to start this year, beginning with a Smith-branded truck, with vans and light vans to follow, likely including the electric Ford Transit Connect.

Tanfield set up the venture as a majority U.S.-owned business, which means it can apply for what it says is “substantial” federal and regional funding for electric vehicle manufacturers in the U.S. It’s aiming to raise $10 million for the new business, with investors (not just government funding) making up at least some of that target.

In the UK, Smith Electric is still operating on a relatively small-scale, selling hundreds rather than thousands of demonstration vehicles for use by Sainsbury’s, the Royal Mail, DHL and others. In its most recent annual report, Tanfield said it built and delivered 260 vehicles in 2007, with models ranging from the compact van based on the Ford Transit Connect, up to the much larger Newton truck, which uses a chassis from the Czech Republic’s Avia.

The move to the U.S. will start out small as well. “We build numbers to sell into major fleet operators for demonstration purposes, and once that cycle’s complete, then, obviously, we expect them to come back and purchase many more,” said Jenkins.

As for Ford, it has plans to go beyond just commercial vehicles for its electric lineup, with a small electric car expected in 2011, hybrid vehicles in 2012, and plug-in hybrid electrics in 2012.