Bill Ford was given a prototype of the not-yet-released 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E to drive in early October and he didn't want to give it back. He asked for an extension. The design and production teams had to plead for the return of the all-electric SUV from the company's executive chairman, known for his love of the classic Mustang.
"We had had to pry it out of his hands," Hau Thai-Tang, chief product development officer at Ford, told the Free Press.
Ford has a lot at stake with its first foray into the battery-electric vehicles scene that has been defined by Tesla Inc., a Wall Street darling that dominates the highly lucrative California market of nearly 40 million people and its billions of dollars in spending power.
"The vehicle is a game changer," Ford CEO Jim Farley told the Free Press. "For me, the Mach-E is the first true competitor with Tesla. It's got Detroit swagger. It's a Mustang. Tesla is not a Mustang."
Ford is scheduled to deliver the first Mach-E vehicles to customers before the end of the year. These hot new SUVs won't fill dealerships; they'll be made to order. In the first year, Ford is expecting to build an estimated 50,000 globally.
This was the first time Ford had ever launched a product through a reservation process, anticipating intense demand.
"We'll start to launch at the end of the year. We're just entering early mass production now, where we start to build the Mustang Mach-E's in volume," Farley said.
"We're not ramping up that curve and making hundreds a day," he said. "We're literally building Mach-E's right now and building a lot but in lower volumes. We'll build them and test them and make sure they're perfect. We sort out every problem. Once we're satisfied we've got every problem solved, then we turn on the light switch and go into job one."
No one can say precisely the date cars will be delivered to customers because it all depends on pre-production quality testing and review.
Demand for all-electric vehicles is coming primarily from Norway, California and the Sunbelt now, he said.
In California, drivers in an electric vehicle are allowed to take an express lane that can slash commute time. This is a key reason for the appeal in California, which has taken dramatic measures to combat air quality issues that can trigger asthma attacks and require the elderly and school children to remain indoors.
Ashley Valletta, general manager and vice president of The Ford Store Morgan Hill located just south of San Jose, said the demand for electric cars is insatiable. "Tesla has just gone crazy in northern California and the Bay Area in general." In her market area, the leading brands are Toyota, Honda, Tesla and Ford — in that order. Ford has just 6.5% of the industry and Tesla outsells Ford by the thousands.
"We see the Mach-E as being a competitor to Tesla," she said. "We have a bunch of people who have Ford F-150s and SUVs and they need a commuter that's all-electric."
So far, 50 orders are pending with more in the pipeline, Valletta said.
Silicon Valley is filled with early adopters who pride themselves on having the first of everything, from the latest iPhone to the latest electric car. The Mach-E showing on Oct. 19 in Morgan Hill attracted a crowd of young influentials eager to get a glimpse.
Ford, now led by a CEO who knows what it means to compete on a racetrack and build vehicles by hand, is determined to seriously compete in the most innovative segment of the automotive industry.
Farley promises to deliver emotion behind the wheel and to offer impressive technology that's more intuitive and less complicated than Tesla.
"We have an (additional) small screen in front of the driver, which we think is a lot safer. You don't have to move your attention to the center of the car, away from the road," he said. "You can hit a button and pick driver modes with one click. You still have traditional buttons."
In a Tesla, he said, you have to go through different screen menus to turn on the defroster or adjust mirrors. Ford wanted to make activity quicker and easier.
While Tesla has decided to go without a front grill or an instrument cluster inside and instead have a lot of controls embedded in the screen, Ford said Tesla design has come at the expense of usability.
"There are things you should be able to do in the dark," Thai-Tang said. "We still have an instrument cluster behind the steering wheel. This is a driver's car."
And it will calculate traffic congestion and how the driver is driving to calculate distance remaining on the charge, he said.
Having two college-age daughters "who are not car enthusiasts but are tech enthusiasts" helped Thai-Tang get a feel for comparing Tesla and Ford. "They loved the technology and the fact that it was familiar put them at ease."
One thing that sets apart Ford is the idea that so many people out west own a Tesla that they're no longer new or interesting, Ford dealers said. The Mustang will be a limited must-see vehicle where demand likely outstrips supply.
"We give people a chance to be an individual. If you're in California, every other vehicle is a Tesla," Thai-Tang said. "This is about being part of Mustang nation, a connection."
Tesla, widely viewed by investors as a technology company first and an automaker second, is the zero-emissions leader run by a billionaire who makes rocket ships.
The 2021 Mach-E starts at $43,995 including delivery fees with an estimated 300 mile range. The Tesla Model Y SUV starts at $51,90 with an estimated 326 mile range, according to its website. Ford notes that its consumers will qualify for a $7,500 federal tax credit while Tesla has used up its allocation of tax incentives.
Until now, no one has seriously competed with Tesla, said Steve Fuentes, president of Sunnyvale Ford, near San Jose. "When you sit in this car, you're like, wow. ... This is a real groundbreaking kind of product."
He held a Mach-E dealership event on Oct. 23 that attracted so many onlookers that some had to be turned away to comply with social distancing safety requirements. An estimated 70 buyers have orders pending, Fuentes said.
As luck would have it, Tesla is moving in right next door on an estimated six acres, he said. When shoppers go to Tesla, they'll be able to check out the Mach-E, too.
Shoppers have been disappointed that production was disrupted by the pandemic, which shuttered factories throughout North America for two months.
When asked if access to battery charging stations or electricity is a concern for potential buyers, a question not uncommon in the Midwest, Farley said drivers in Norway have been at more than 50% electric for more than five years. And California, which is no stranger to rolling blackouts during peak electricity use or fire season, is quickly adopting all-electric vehicles.
People sometimes forget that customers can't pump gas during blackouts, either, because gas pumps don't work without electricity.
While California leads the way with electric car purchases now, he hopes Ford will create new markets in the Midwest and along the east coast.
Some die-hard Mustang fans cringe at the idea the company would build an SUV and call it a Mustang. To them, Farley says, "You've just got to try it."
He plans to trade his 2019 Mustang GT for the Mach-E as a daily driver, he said.
And what about people who fear the idea of changing from gas-powered to all-electric?
"If Ford is coming out with an electric car ... our electric future is here," Farley said. "We're changing as a society."
But don't worry, he said. "We will have plenty of fantastic internal combustion engine vehicles for you. There will be lots of choice. This transition will take a long time. I will tell you, some of the most skeptical friends I had that I put in the Mach-E, they were like OMG. I really insist. Seeing is believing."
The vehicle is built at the Ford plant in Cuautitlán Izcalli, Mexico. While the first vehicles will be made for pending orders, dealerships will eventually be shipped supplies.