AURSKOG, Norway - Ford is forming an umbrella company to bring its electric and alternative fuel vehicles to market. The group, called Th!nk Nordic, takes its name from the Th!nk Norwegian electric city car launched here by Ford President Jac Nasser on November 12.
The job of Th!nk will be to decide the business case and define the market for each new alternative energy vehicle within Ford, including electric and fuel-cell cars, said John Wallace, newly named executive director of the group.
'To establish where ecology meets economy - that's my task,' said Wallace. He came to Ford from Intel, the computer-chip maker, to become director of environmental vehicle research at the Vehicle Technology Environmental Vehicle Center in Dearborn, Michigan, USA.
Ford owns 51 percent of Th!nk Nordic, formerly known as Pivco Industries, the firm that invented the Th!nk City minicar.
'Th!nk Group will be a source of innovative business practices and approaches within Ford,' said Wallace. 'We have the freedom to experiment.'
With Th!nk, Ford is entering uncharted territory. Electric vehicles are an untested market. Ford does not really know precisely who the customers are or how much they might pay for such a car.
'The market potential is not defined, and we like it that way,' said Nasser, who flew into Oslo for the opening of the factory. Guest of honor at the event was Norway's King Harald V.
Nasser said the Th!nk brand would be used for other vehicles. Although Ford officials were unwilling to give details of plans for the name, Wallace said the Th!nk brand will have applications well beyond the Th!nk City minicar.
Ford also likes Th!nk's manufacturing style. Th!nk cars have injection-molded plastic bodies. The cars are bolted together in a factory that only cost $10 million to build. Ford hopes such factories could be quickly and easily built in other locations, if there is demand.
The factory puts no pollutants into the air or water, so it would face no planning restrictions, Wallace said.
'The techniques they use here, we sense they'll be replicated elsewhere in other factories,' said Wallace.
But before Ford builds any replicas of the Norwegian factory, it must find a market for the electric cars it makes now. The plant now has capacity for about 5,000 cars a year working a single shift.
The start of production at the Th!nk factory fulfills a dream for Jan Otto Ringdal, whose father Lars conceived the idea for the Th!nk car during the energy crisis of the early 1970s. Once the energy crisis abated, so too did the urgency to build an electric car. But Ringdal stuck with it until the company went into bankruptcy.
The Th!nk City was designed with the help of Lotus Engineering in Norwich, England. The electric motor is powered by 114-volt nickel cadmium batteries. Ford claims Th!nk City will accelerate from 0-50kph in 7 seconds and reach a top speed of 90kph.
Ford subsidiary Hertz will distribute and lease out the Th!nk cars, though Ford officials do not know yet if Hertz will be the only distribution channel.
Oslo and other Nordic cities are welcoming electric cars. There are recharging outlets set up in downtown Oslo car parks. Electric cars can travel Oslo's toll roads free, and customers enjoy considerable tax benefits. However, recharging outlets are difficult to find in most European Union countries, making electric-car ownership impossible for most private motorists.