In a move that shows how difficult it is to produce and sell electric cars, even for the giants of the auto industry, Ford announced today that 20 U.S. cities will be the first to get the all-electric Focus, which will hit dealerships in late 2011.

It also shows how key utilities will be in advancing the electric-car cause. The launch cities were chosen based on commuting patterns, hybrid purchase trends, local government support for electrification and utility-company collaboration. The last factor sheds light on the slew of partnerships with utilities Ford recently announced. The auto maker recently wrapped up a 14-city tour of the Focus Electric that announced consumer-education partnerships with utilities along the way.

One of the partnerships Ford announced (and VentureBeat covered) was with Dallas utility Oncor. Sure enough, Dallas is one of the cities on the initial launch list. The rest are in a broad swatch of large to medium-sized markets: The first markets selected Atlanta, Portland (where Ford is teaming up with utility Portland General Electric), Austin, Houston, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, New York, Orlando, Phoenix, Tucson, Raleigh, Durham, N.C., Richmond, Va., Seattle, and Washington, D.C.

“There is a great deal of excitement for the Focus Electric across America and Ford wants to build on this enthusiasm by making our first all-electric passenger vehicle available in as many pilot markets as possible,” said Mark Fields, the company’s president of the Americas, in a statement. “As the country continues to build up its electric vehicle infrastructure and demand for the Focus Electric grows, Ford will continue to evaluate additional markets and consider making this vehicle available in more cities across the country.”

The Focus Electric is Ford’s first all-electric car — which I test-drove — and the company says it’s targeting a driving range of 100 miles on a single charge, which put it about on par with the Nissan Leaf. Nissan also took the graduated-launch approach with the Leaf, which will launch with just 200 cars in five states starting this December (one of them is Tennessee, home to Nissan’s U.S. headquarters, which is not on the Focus’s first-look list). But Nissan is reportedly suffering delays in the Leaf launch, according to Green Car Reports, and may see even fewer cars delivered in the initial launch phase.

Almost all electric-car makers are employing a gradual rollout strategy, including Nissan and the seemingly troubled startup Coda. Given that GE just boosted electric vehicle sales big-time with a record-busting plan to order 25,000 of them by 2015, it’ll be interesting if Ford targets fleet sales in a big way since they’re key in electric carmakers’ efforts to get more sales and speed adoption. Almost half of GE’s order will go to GM, starting with the 2011 Chevy Volt (also launching this December, alongside the Leaf.)

For is also planning to deliver more electrified vehicles in Europe and North American, including the Transit Connect, a small electric commercial van, a plug-in hybrid and two “next-generation lithium-ion battery hybrids.”