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Report Toyota Will Delay Lithium Battery Intro in Hybrids

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  • Felix Kramer
    Late last year, Toyota announced it would slow development of some products due to concerns about maintaining quality levels. We wondered then if this would
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 13, 2007
      Late last year, Toyota announced it would slow
      development of some products due to concerns
      about maintaining quality levels. We wondered
      then if this would apply to the "next-generation"
      Prius (since one generation was sold only in
      Japan, that would make it Prius version 4),
      expected for Model Year 2009 in fall 2008. Even
      since then, Toyota has said it would include
      lithium batteries, and we all hoped it might
      include plug-in capabilities (see <http://www.calcars.org/carmakers.html>).

      A few weeks ago, reports circulated that Toyota
      would delay the introduction of lithium batteries
      in the Prius. But a June 7 AP story about
      Toyota's reaching its milestone of having sold
      one million hybrids, said "Mitsuo Kinoshita, a
      senior Toyota executive, recently denied Japanese
      media reports that Toyota had given up on having
      a lithium-ion battery system for the
      next-generation Prius. "We're still working on
      it," he told reporters.

      Today's Wall Street Journal reports that lithium
      is out for the 2009 model because of unresolved
      issues with thermal management. Its chief
      automotive reporter cites sources saying Toyota
      President Katsuaki Watanabe made the call. Toyota
      will instead use "more advanced" nickel-metal
      hydride batteries. (NiMH has lower energy density
      than Li-Ion, and the price of the raw materials
      has risen sharply in recent years. But they are
      fully proven and have minimal safety issues.)

      We imagine the company will make a formal
      statement. Meanwhile, this means two things:

      First, there is clearly plenty of life left in
      NiMH -- and if Toyota wanted to, there's no
      reason the 2009 Prius or the "Prius derivative"
      station wagon described in the WSJ couldn't be a
      PHEV with a substantial electric-only low-speed range.

      Second, as the WSJ story says, this improves the
      chances that GM will be first with a PHEV Volt or
      VUE. (And, since all carmakers watch each other
      closely, this could prompt some reasoned voices
      within GM to take more seriously the suggestions
      that Version 1.0 of GM's first PHEVs could get to
      market sooner with NiMH than with Li-Ion.)

      We include the WSJ story below. It's followed by
      a USA Today report on the evolution of Toyota's
      goals for introducing hybrid models. The slowdown
      described (one-third of 35 vehicles will have a
      hybrid option around 2010) doesn't necessarily
      conflict with the May statement by Toyota's
      Masatami Takimoto that all its cars will be
      hybrids by 2020. The article says Toyota is also
      looking at diesel hybrids -- no mention of
      flex-fuel hybrids, which have problems meeting
      low pollution standards because of evaporative emissions.

      Toyota Delays Use Of Lithium-Ion Batteries In New Prius Hybrids
      By Norihiko Shirouzu norihiko.shirouzu@...
      Wall Street Journal, June 13, 2007 12:42 a.m.

      TOYOTA CITY, Japan – Toyota Motor Corp., alarmed
      by growing concern over the safety of lithium-ion
      battery technology, has decided not to use that
      technology for the initial versions of the
      next-generation Prius gasoline-electric hybrid
      car, whose launch was scheduled for the autumn of
      next year, according to individuals familiar with Toyota's product plans.

      The move, those individuals said, is aimed
      chiefly at dealing with potential problems with
      the application of lithium-ion batteries in the
      redesigned Prius – a new technology that packs
      more electricity in the same space and weight
      than the nickel-metal hydride batteries used in
      nearly all hybrid vehicles sold today.

      Toyota had hoped the new battery technology would
      allow its engineers to halve the size of the
      current hybrid propulsion system using
      nickel-metal hydride batteries, thereby making
      the hybrid substantially cheaper and more
      fuel-efficient. The kind of lithium-ion battery
      technology that was under consideration for use
      in the Prius – one based on lithium cobalt oxide
      -- has shown a tendency to overheat and catch on
      fire -- a problem that has bedeviled computer
      makers using lithium-ion batteries made by
      Japan's Sony Corp. The delay also comes in
      response to the recent rise in product recalls
      and other quality gaffes in new Toyota vehicles,
      the individuals who spoke on condition of anonymity said.

      They said the decision was made ultimately by
      Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe who in the
      recent past has voiced concern about Toyota's
      vehicle quality – what he has repeated called the
      auto maker's "lifeline." In the U.S., the number
      of recalls hit 2.38 million vehicles in 2005,
      before settling down to 601,894 vehicles last
      year, according to Toyota. The company plans to
      use a more advanced version of nickel-metal
      hydride batteries for the initial launch of the
      next-generation Prius, people familiar with the company's plans said.

      Nickel-metal hydride batteries are a less
      sophisticated kind of technology than lithium-ion
      batteries but have been used in the Prius since
      1997 and proven in real life driving for nearly a
      decade. Still, that doesn't mean the company has
      given up lithium-ion battery technology
      altogether. Toyota already has been testing a
      Prius equipped with a still-experimental
      lithium-ion battery pack on the company's proving
      ground in Toyota City. The car was being
      test-driven as recently as last week. The
      individuals said Toyota plans to launch the new
      battery technology as soon as it believes it is
      robust enough for mass production and real-life
      driving. That means, they said, the Japanese auto
      maker will likely equip a later derivative of the
      next-generation Prius with lithium-ion batteries.
      It wasn't clear when that Prius derivative,
      believed to be a station wagon, is coming out. A
      spokesman at Toyota's supplier of those
      lithium-ion batteries, Panasonic EV Energy Co. Ltd., declined to comment.

      Toyota's move to postpone an application of
      lithium-ion batteries in hybrids will likely
      provide a big break for Toyota's rivals, such as
      General Motors Corp. which is trying to come out
      with hybrid vehicles using lithium-ion batteries
      as early as in 2009. People familiar with GM's
      product plans said GM had all but given up its
      hopes to beat Toyota to market with a
      gasoline-electric hybrid with a lithium-ion
      battery pack. GM, those people said, has been
      aiming at launching a Saturn Vue Green Line
      plug-in hybrid by the autumn of 2009. "This is a
      big break" for GM, one of those people said.

      A Toyota spokesman in Tokyo said: "We always try
      to launch a product in a most timely fashion as possible."

      The move is part of Toyota President Mr.
      Watanabe's effort to slow down the pace of
      product development in order to shore up vehicle
      quality and reliability following a string of
      recalls and other quality gaffes in recent years.

      Last year, Mr. Watanabe told The Wall Street
      Journal that after a two-month review of its
      product-development processes, the company
      concluded engineers in some cases might have
      rushed out products without conducting enough
      quality checks, such as building prototypes. He
      said he intended to boost the number of those
      quality checks and would hire more engineers to do so.

      Toyota scales back hybrid plans
      USA Today, June 11, 2007

      After taking a decade to sell its first 1 million
      gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles worldwide,
      Toyota Motor now says it plans to sell 1 million a year within a few years.

      At the same time, the big automaker appears to be
      backing away from a pledge made a few years ago
      that hybrid powertrains would be available as
      options on nearly every U.S. vehicle by 2010.

      "The right car, at the right place, at the right
      time, in accordance with energy trends," said
      Mira Sleilati, spokeswoman at Toyota Motor North
      America, the automaker's holding company. Her
      comment was via e-mail, in response to questions
      about Toyota's alternative-power vehicles.

      "Hybrid technology is our core technology, and we
      will double our hybrid lineup. At the same time,
      we are accelerating the pace of our efforts to
      achieve annual sales of 1 million units in the
      early part of the 2010s," she said in the e-mail.

      That would be less ambitious than promised in
      October 2003 at the Tarrytown, N.Y., briefing on the redesigned Prius hybrid.

      Doubling the U.S. hybrid line would result in 12
      hybrids, just one-third the 35 total models sold
      by Toyota's namesake brand, its Lexus luxury
      brand and its Scion youth brand - and not until
      after the 2010 date promised at the 2003 briefing.

      How does that amount to "accelerating the pace"
      of hybrid launches? Sleilati wouldn't explain:
      "We, on behalf of TMC (Toyota Motor Corp., the
      Japanese parent company) are unable to provide
      any additional comment beyond this, particularly
      in regards to product planning or timing."

      Regardless, Toyota would be the most ambitious
      hybrid marketer at a time that $3 gasoline has
      made fuel-saving hybrids popular in America.

      Sales of gasoline-electric hybrids should boom
      226 percent to 854,000 in 2011 from 262,000 last
      year, according to a forecast by J.D. Power and
      Associates. "If gas prices stay high, the sky's
      the limit," says J.D. Power spokesman John Tews.

      The United States, in fact, is the biggest hybrid
      market. It accounted for 163,000 of Toyota's
      313,000 total hybrid sales last year, or 52
      percent. And the United States accounted for
      about 57 percent of the first 1 million worldwide
      sales, which Toyota announced last week.

      The automaker introduced its Prius
      gasoline-electric hybrid in Japan in 1997 and in
      the USA in 2000. It now also sells hybrid
      versions of the Camry sedan and Highlander SUV
      and of the Lexus LS and GS sedans and RX SUV.
      Honda, Ford Motor, General Motors and Nissan also
      offer hybrids, though sales lag behind Toyota substantially.

      Fuel economy is the main selling point. Toyota's
      Camry hybrid is rated 34 miles per gallon in
      combined city-highway driving under 2008 federal
      rules versus 25 mpg for the highest-rated gasoline Camry.

      Toyota also says it is mulling diesel-power
      passenger vehicles and expects to announce those
      plans, if any, next month. Rival Honda plans U.S. diesel cars in 2009.

      -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
      Felix Kramer fkramer@...
      Founder California Cars Initiative
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