Ford Motor Company and software giant Microsoft are two companies that don't seem to have a lot in common, but the two firms announced plans today to collaborate to make a more efficient electric car.

Ford, of course, will actually build the cars but Microsoft says it will supply an "energy management" system that will debut in the Ford Focus electric model next year. The technology, called "Hohm," will help owners determine when and how to most efficiently and affordably recharge battery electric (BEV) and plug-in hybrid (PHEV) vehicles. It also should help utility companies manage the added demands of electric vehicles on the electric grid.

"For Ford, this is a needed step in the development of the infrastructure that will make electric vehicles viable," said Alan Mulally, Ford Motor Company president and CEO.

The partnership stems from a belief that, for electric vehicles to become viable consumer options, better energy management is required. Consumer interest is already there, the companies say. In a recent Accenture survey, 42 percent of consumers said they are likely to buy a hybrid or electric vehicle in the next two years. The next hurdle, however, is showing that investing in an electric car will actually pay off in the long run.

To pay off, electricity has to remain affordable. Increasing numbers of electric vehicles, however, will have a significant impact on energy demand. That is because the addition of an electric vehicle to a household could effectively double home energy consumption while the vehicle is charging.

"With Microsoft Hohm, Ford and Microsoft will deliver a solution that will make it easier for car owners to make smart decisions about the most affordable and efficient ways to recharge electric vehicles, while giving utilities better tools for managing the expected changes in energy demand," said Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO.

Ford plans to put five new electrified vehicles on the road in North America and Europe by 2013. In North America, they include the Transit Connect Electric later this year, Focus Electric in 2011, a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle and two next-generation hybrids in 2012.

While the Toyota Prius is perhaps the best-known hybrid, Ford currently has four hybrids on the road and another coming this year. They include the Ford Fusion Hybrid, Ford Escape Hybrid, Mercury Milan Hybrid and Mercury Mariner Hybrid. Also coming this fall is the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid, which Ford thinks will be the most fuel-efficient luxury sedan in America.

Lower electric bills

Hohm is an Internet-based service designed to help customers avoid unnecessary expense by providing insight into their energy usage patterns and suggesting recommendations to increase conservation. With Ford electric vehicles, Hohm also will advise drivers of the best time to charge their vehicle. Smart recharging habits will help utility companies understand and better manage the increased demands placed upon the electric grid because of electrified vehicles.

Ford and Microsoft have partnered before, though not on this scale. The Ford SYNC communications and infotainment system, built on the Windows Embedded Automotive platform, has been installed on more than 2 million Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles since its launch in 2007. It allows drivers to connect and voice-control their mobile devices while driving.

Microsoft currently makes Hohm available for free to all U.S. residential energy consumers and has multiple partnerships with utilities and other stakeholders already in place, the company said. Ford is the first automaker to join in collaboration with Hohm.

"Rechargeable vehicles represent a new frontier. Their commercialization will take broad-based collaboration and systems solutions," said Mulally. "Working together, Ford and Microsoft will provide the systems solutions to help facilitate this exciting future."