John Viera has made a name for himself as a pioneer for the green movement within the automotive industry. As Ford Motor Company’s Director of Sustainable Business Strategies, he has been building a new base for the Big Three manufacturer to flourish in a sustainable way. We here at Inhabitat were lucky enough to have the opportunity to pick the brain of Viera, who spoke to us about a number of topics, including Ford’s future in plug-in hybrid(PHEV) and electricvehicles (EV). Read on for our exclusive interview!

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According to Viera, Ford’s first all-electric vehicle, the Transit Connect, is coming out in 2010. “It’s like a mini commercial van,” he says. “It’s useful for florists, electricians–anything where you don’t have to carry heavy loads.” The company’s next EV will be a Ford Focus–sized sedan, set to debut in 2011, followed by a PHEV mini-SUV in 2012. While the EVs will be unveiled in the U.S. first, Viera says they will be released on a global platform and can deployed worldwide quickly.

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Viera remains unfazed by competition in the EV and PHEV arena from nimble start-ups like Fisker and Tesla. “The difference in our strategy is that we’re working on vehicles for the everyday consumer, the small business owner,” he says. In contrast, the Fiskers and the Teslas of the world are working on high-end vehicles with small distribution networks.

But Ford isn’t putting all its eggs into one electric vehiclebasket. The company is also working on hydrogen vehicle research. While Viera acknowledges hydrogen-powered cars aren’t economically feasible at the moment, he says Ford wants to remain prepared for improvements in the field.

“There could be a breakthrough in hydrogen and we want to be there for it. We don’t want to feel like we have to pick and choose between electric and hydrogen.”

Ford is also investing in fuel-saving initiatives for its gasoline-powered vehicles. The company’s EcoBoost technology, which involves direct-injecting gas into car cylinders, is being rolled out in select Ford vehicles right now. With direct injection, cars run more efficiently with fewer cylinders; an EcoBoost V6 engine (a V engine with 6 cylinders), for example, works as well as a normal V8engine. Ford expects to have 90% of its vehicles using EcoBoost technology by 2013.

When determining a car company’s progress toward sustainability, we often jump straight to fuel efficiency–as we just did. But the materials used inside the cars are just as important. If a vehicle line runs solely on electric power but uses petroleum-based materials in its seats, it’s not nearly as environmentally friendly as it could be. That’s why we are impressed with Ford’s sustainable material initiatives. The company already uses soy foam in at least six of its car seats.

“We’re using a lot of recycled materials in our products,” Viera says, “The Fusion hybrid and Escape hybrid seat material is made up of post-consumer waste.”

Ford’s vast reach means its steps toward sustainabilitywill likely be imitated by other Detroit automakers. Here’s hoping Ford continues on its current path.