Ford Motor Company and Azure Dynamics have begun shipping the first Ford Transit Connect Electrics to early customers in North America and to the United Kingdom for a demonstration project.

The carmaker estimates that electric fleet vehicles will constitute about 50 percent of the total electric market over the next 10 years, compared to just a sliver of that market going to pure electric cars. Gas-electric hybrids, like those on the roads today, will account for a larger share of the pie, Ford believes, followed by plug-in hybrids.

Azure Dynamics' LEAD customer program includes seven companies that are taking delivery of their first units in 2010, with the remainder of their orders to be filled in 2011. Customers that have been previously announced include AT&T, Southern California Edison, Xcel Energy, Johnson Controls Inc., New York Power Authority, Canada Post and Toronto Atmospheric Fund EV300. Additional LEAD customers will be identified by the end of the year, the carmaker said in a statement.

Supplier collaboration is important on all Ford product programs, but it was especially key in this effort, which went from contract signing to vehicle production in 13 months, said Sherif Marakby, Ford director, Electrification Programs and Engineering. A strong teamwork environment established by Azure and Ford was critical to delivering this vehicle.

The $57,400 electric Transit Connect will have a range of 80 miles and come with a 10-year, 120,000 mile warranty, which reflects typical commercial use.

The automaker will ramp up full production of the electric Connect in April, making 600 to 700 vehicles in the first year, and start production in Europe next summer. Comparatively, Ford has sold about 30,000 gas-powered Connects. The vehicle was launched last year.

According to a recent report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, plug-in electric vehicles, including plug-in hybrids and battery electric vehicles, have the potential to make up 9% of auto sales in 2020 and 22% in 2030 (1.6 million and 4 million vehicle sales respectively).

The governments across the world have set aside billions of dollars in the form of subsidies for early adopters of these alternative energy cars and to boost production of batteries for such vehicles despite persisting doubts about how many people will actually buy them.