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GM's 30-Person Battery Team; BizWeek Sees Japanese Win on PHEVs
Jan 23, 2007 (From the CalCars-News archive)
This posting originally appeared at CalCars-News, our newsletter of breaking CalCars and plug-in hybrid news. View the original posting here.
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A few key clips from the story, followed by full text:

  • the Volt is going some way to persuade cynics that U.S. automakers are finally getting serious about environmental technologies.
  • many industry watchers, especially those in Japan, remain skeptical that the Volt will do much to narrow the gap between GM and hybrid leaders Toyota and Honda
  • While details are scant, Toyota is also working on plug-in hybrids of its own.
  • Honda is working on ... plug-in hybrids of its own.
  • a breakthrough in Li-ion battery expected to happen in Japan [from] Sanyo Electric, which supplies hybrid batteries to Honda and Ford, and Panasonic EV Energy, in which Toyota has a 60% stake

Below that is a Detroit Free Press story about GM naming Denise Gray as its "battery czar" over a battery team of 30.

Asia January 19, 2007
In Green Push, GM Still Lags Japan
The Detroit automaker's Chevy Volt is getting a
lot of attention, but Toyota and Honda won't
relent in their drive to lead the hybrid market­globalbiz/­content/­jan2007/­gb20070119_906171.htm?campaign_id=rss_topStories
by Ian Rowley

Of the dozens of vehicles on display at this year's North American International Auto Show in Detroit, GM's Chevy Volt concept car probably commanded the most attention. The innovative car uses electric power exclusively for up to 40 miles of a trip. Then the range-extending power source-which creates electricity from either gasoline, E85, or biodiesel-kicks in to recharge the lithium ion battery pack (see, 1/7/07, "Chevy's Volt has the Juice").

What's more, as a plug-in hybrid (one that can recharge its batteries either using a car engine or connecting to the electricity grid), the Volt has won praise for being a step up from current offerings, which rely solely on the engine for recharging.

Just as important for Detroit, the Volt is going some way to persuade cynics that U.S. automakers are finally getting serious about environmental technologies. "It is a rare occurrence when Toyota gets "out-greened" at a major auto show, or anywhere, for that matter. But GM has done just that with its Volt," notes blog (see, 1/17/07, "A Hot Reception For GM's Volt").

GM accepts that battery technology will have to improve markedly for the Volt to become a reality. But it reckons that could happen as early as 2010.

Yet for all the hoopla, many industry watchers, especially those in Japan, remain skeptical that the Volt will do much to narrow the gap between GM and hybrid leaders Toyota and Honda While details are scant, Toyota is also working on plug-in hybrids of its own. "GM is attempting to catch up [in hybrids], but Toyota will maintain the same speed or go even faster," says Hirofumi Yokoi, an auto analyst at CSM Worldwide in Tokyo.

No Rest for the Weary

Toyota has already achieved what many in Detroit thought was impossible: making hybrids profitable. Although the company doesn't break out figures by model, Merrill Lynch analyst Koichi Sugimoto estimates that profit margins on the Prius hybrid are between 3% and 5%. For more expensive models, like the Lexus RX 400h, margins are even higher.

Moreover, while GM looks to the future with plug-ins, Toyota has big plans to improve its current gas-electric offerings. In late 2008 or early 2009, it is expected to launch a third-generation hybrid system that should raise the bar for the entire segment.

The new system, which will use Li-ion batteries instead of the current nickel metal hydride cells, is expected to be half the size of current hybrid systems and, more important, half the price. Fuel efficiency, reckons Merrill's Sugimoto, will be improved by 20% to 30%.

Toyota is also expected to widen its range of hybrids. In the future, the company could offer a hybrid version of any model that sells more than 100,000 units a year (see, 4/3/06, "Toyota Winning the Hybrid Race"). Speaking at the Detroit show, Toyota North America chief Jim Press told reporters the company is looking to boost hybrid sales by 50% in 2007, to between 250,000 and 300,000.

Unrelenting Efforts

Honda also is making headway on environmentally friendly technology. Last fall it revealed it is developing a "green" diesel car for the U.S. market (see, 10/30/06, "Honda's (Green) Diesel Machines"). In addition, the company has plans to begin leasing out a fuel cell car, a version of the FCX Concept, in 2008.

In gas-electric hybrids, Honda is working on a new subcompact model that will likely debut in 2009, and plug-in hybrids of its own. "Hybrid technology is very strong and proven technology for improving fuel economy," Motoatsu Shiraishi, president of Honda research and development, told reporters at the Detroit Show. "And we won't relent in our efforts. We are studying what kind of conditions would enable a plug-in."

But perhaps the biggest indicator that Japanese carmakers are poised to stay in the lead is that a breakthrough in Li-ion battery technology-vital if the Volt is to get off the ground-is expected to happen in Japan. Sanyo Electric, which supplies hybrid batteries to Honda and Ford, and Panasonic EV Energy, in which Toyota has a 60% stake, are the leading makers of nickel hydride hybrid batteries and are investing heavily in Li-ions (see, 9/20/06, "Battery Woes Spark Few Concerns Among Asian Carmakers").

To catch up with the Japanese, the Big Three U.S. automakers are asking Washington to subsidize advanced battery research to the tune of $500 million, spread over five years. GM, meanwhile, has asked Johnson Controls-Saft Advanced Power Solutions, a joint venture between automotive-systems manufacturer Johnson Controls (JCI) and Paris-based Saft, and Cobasys, a joint venture between Chevron and Energy Conversion Devices to develop Li-ions.

"No question, the Japanese will commercialize lithium ion first, but I do think the U.S. can be fast followers," says Per Onnerud, chief technical officer of Boston-Power, a lithium ion battery company based in Westborough, Mass.

Edited by Cristina Lindblad

GM places bets on alternative fuel vehicles
Automaker names engineer to develop long-lasting, safe batteries for the cars
January 21, 2007
Detroit Free Press - Detroit,MI,USA
Contact KATIE MERX at 313-222-8762 or
kmerx@.... Staff Writer Joe Guy Collier contributed to this report.­apps/­pbcs.dll/­article?AID=/­20070121/­BUSINESS01/­701210599

By showing the Chevrolet Volt plug-in electric concept car this month at the North American International Auto Show, General Motors Corp. has staked its reputation -- and a large chunk of change -- on developing cars and trucks that can be propelled by something other than just gasoline.

To make it happen, GM quietly appointed Denise Gray last fall to be its battery czar.

A Michigan native and career GM engineer and manager, Gray's actual title is director of hybrid energy storage systems.

Her charge is to lead the team that will engineer energy storage systems -- you probably call them batteries -- that can store enough energy pulled from an electrical plug, fuel cell, a tank of vegetable oil or good old gasoline to run a vehicle that will run beyond a GM warranty and won't overheat.

Her task is a big one.

"It is expensive to do the kinds of stuff we talked about," GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner told the Free Press last week without divulging cost targets. "This costs a lot of money to do."

At both the Los Angeles and Detroit auto shows, Wagoner has called the electrification of vehicles and the development of plug-in hybrid production vehicles "a top priority program for GM, given the huge potential it offers for fuel-economy improvement."

Last week, he told an industry conference that developing advanced propulsion systems is a top priority because it's "highly unlikely" that oil alone will supply all of the world's rapidly growing automotive energy requirements.

GM says the Volt could travel 40 miles on a fully charged lithium-ion battery and more than 600 miles using a three-cylinder gasoline engine that recharges the battery.

GM is aggressively pushing the concept further by pursuing the technology needed to make the Volt's powertrain a reality for a production vehicle, said auto analyst Stephanie Brinley of AutoPacific Inc. in Southfield.

But development of the Volt's so-called E-flex propulsion system is dependent on advancements in lithium-ion battery technology. Such an advanced lithium-ion battery does not exist, yet.

Skeptics argue that its development is far off. Manufacturers still are having problems with some smaller lithium-ion batteries already used in personal electronics. Last fall, Sony Corp. recalled 9.6 million lithium-ion batteries used in laptop computers after reports of sparks, overheating and fires.

The batteries needed to run vehicles would be larger.

GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz admits that there is work to do. GM needs a battery that will last longer, will cost less and won't overheat. But, he said, GM is proceeding as if the Volt, or something like it, were a viable product.

The technology is at a point that GM believes it could have a product ready as soon as 2010.

Earlier this month, GM awarded development contracts to suppliers Johnson Controls-Saft and Cobasys (with another partner) to create and test lithium-ion batteries that will be installed in prototype vehicles for testing later this year.

But Gray, whose newly assigned team of 30 is responsible for developing and testing the battery systems for all of GM's planned hybrids -- including the two-mode hybrids expected to debut later this year and a Saturn Vue plug-in hybrid announced at the Los Angeles auto show -- said when it comes to production of the Volt: "No dates in my mind have been established."

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