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back to index backASIAtalk September,  2005


New Japanese Batteries That Make Electric Cars Feasible May Blindside Detroit Anew

Japanese automotive technology has blindsided Detroit, and to some extent the Europeans, twice in the past three decades—once during the oil crisis of 1974, and the second time with the development of hybrids in the mid-1990s.

Now it looks for fair as if it could happen yet a third time. Two Japanese makers, Mitsubishi and Subaru, have announced plans to field competitive all-electric subcompacts before the end of the decade, based on new, long-lasting, quick-charging lithium ion battery technology developed by electrical giants NEC and Toshiba (see story page 1). Not to mention the environmental advantages, both automakers are making the argument that the cars will cost a whole lot less to operate. Under ordinary conditions they will run 120 to 150 miles on a charge—plenty for a commute even in Los Angeles—and do it for between one- fifth and one-eighth the cost of running a standard internal combustion engine.

Mass Market Prices

Not only that, but the vehicles can be built, sold and maintained at modest prices. Both companies expect to sticker their minivehicle-sized electrics at ¥1.5 to ¥2 million ($13,500 to $18,000). Both say they expect the batteries to operate for up to 90,000 miles before replacement. Those numbers pretty clearly put a mass market within reach. Fuji Heavy president Kyoji Takenaka told reporters if we can sell 2,000 cars a month, it is feasible.”

What's odd is that at a time when a stunning increase in fuel prices has once again focused consumer minds on the cost of driving, Detroit, Stuttgart and the rest seem to be paying no attention. Instead of rubbing their chins and sending their engineers out to have a look at what Mitsubishi, Subaru, NEC and Toshiba are up to, Ford, GM and DaimlerChrysler seem to be singularly focused on catching up with what the Japanese have already done—in hybrids.

Squeezed By Rivals?

Mary Ann Wright, director of Ford's hybrid programs research and advanced engineering, carped to the Detroit News a couple of weeks ago that her company finds itself standing in line behind Toyota for the parts it needs to build more copies of its hybrid Escape, and to get its Mercury Mariner hybrid on the road this fall.

Ford suspects it may be getting squeezed out by its Japanese rivals,” the News intoned. The company wants to triple its hybrid lineup over the next three years, but Aisin Seiki, which makes the hybrid motor and transmission that operates the Ford system, says it can raise deliveries only 20%, to 24,000 a year.

Aisin, which is minority-controlled by Toyota, has interesting shareholders they have to answer to,” Wright told the paper. They have recently been awarded a significant piece of business, and what that has done is limit the number of engineers who can work on my program.” She's starting to look for domestic suppliers, but more than a decade after Toyota set up its own production in Japan.

GM-DaimlerChrysler Hybrids

Meantime GM and DaimlerChrysler last week signed to work together on developing two hybrids, one for heavyweight pickups and sport utilities and another for rear wheel drive cars. They'll be based on a system GM subsidiary Allison developed for the commuter bus industry some years ago. By the time the first of those vehicles gets into a showroom in 2007, however, Toyota will have ramped hybrid sales up into the hundreds of thousands per year—levels at which its economies of scale will make it unbeatably superior to anything the American companies can field.

What's worse about all that is the fact that none of the Detroit makers—and none of the Europeans either, for that matter—seems to have evinced even the slightest interest in the battery work being done by NEC and Toshiba.

No Proprietary Secret

The technology is no proprietary secret of their rivals. NEC has been reporting on its work both independently and jointly with Subaru maker Fuji Heavy—a GM affiliate—at least since the spring of 2002 (see Japan Automotive Digest 5/20/02). It has handed out periodic reports and some scientific papers since then (see JAD 4/5/04).

Last April Toshiba announced its rival battery, based on the use of nanotechnology to vastly enlarge the surface of the electrodes, allowing them to absorb and store lithium ions at high speed without excessive heating (JAD 5/4/05). But even the announcement that two Japanese automakers, albeit smaller players, are now using those batteries to develop electric cars that will be free of the lead-acid factors that sank GM's EV1—lengthy charging times, great weight, short range and short lifespan—seems to have stirred interest only at the Green Car Congress and the coterie of environmental papers and websites around it.

Time for Detroit To Do Its Job

One of the reasons we created the Japan Automotive Digest was to to open a channel for non-readers of the language into the reasons that the Japanese auto industry has become such a powerhouse. Over the years, we've tried to put a lot of focus on some of the new technology and new manufacturing techniques that are central to the Japanese industry's success. Maybe the time has come when Detroit needs to start taking what we have been trying to tell it, seriously.


Source: Japan Automotive Digest
- GAI

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