Race is on for better hybrids

Sat, 26 Jul 2008 | Latest News | Feature articles | Otago Daily Times

While competition is building in the hybrid car market, the action is playing out in something approaching slow motion.

The latest potential alternative to the traditional petrol engine touted for the auto industry - plug-in hybrids and their lithium-ion batteries - may not change what most people drive anytime soon.

Among those cautious about the potential for both is Toyota Motor Corp, the world's largest producer of hybrid vehicles.

Toyota will introduce two new hybrids in January at the Detroit Auto Show, and both will use the tried and true nickel-metal-hydride battery that helps power the Prius.

Neither will be a plug-in, whose batteries can be recharged in a household outlet.

Still, the race is on to develop the lighter, more powerful lithium-ion batteries, despite obstacles including cost and safety concerns.

Lithium-ion is a type of battery that has exploded and caught fire in laptop computers, and is four to five times more expensive than others.

Calling electric-based vehicles "the only sustainable solution'' for the auto industry, Said Al-Hallaj, head of renewable energy programmes at the Illinois Institute of Technology, acknowledges that safety concerns are real.

"We don't want to make the front page for the wrong reasons,'' he said.

"Let's step back and do it correctly.''Camry robotic welding on the Global Body Line at the Altona manufacturing plant. Toyota Motor Corp plans to start assembling the Camry hybrid car in Australia in early 2010 and aims for production of 10,000 a year in its latest effort to popularise such fuel-efficient vehicles. Photo by Reuters.

General Motors Corp and Toyota have announced plans to introduce plug-in hybrids in 2010, and both will use lithium-ion batteries.

GM, which this month approved the plug-in Chevy Volt, has said it will have a range of 65km on electric power.

Motorists who drive less than that between charges would not use any petrol.

After the batteries drain, the Volt's petrol engine recharges them.

GM said it had overcome the safety issue with a lithium-ion chemistry that avoids the high temperatures that can lead to explosions.

Car makers also are experimenting with fuel-cell vehicles that use hydrogen to generate electrical power, but so far have only built small test fleets.

Analysts doubt that fuel cell vehicles will be sold in volume before 2015, because there are few hydrogen filling stations and the cars cost more than $US100,000 ($NZ133,720) to build.

Toyota has yet to identify its plug-in, though analysts expect it will be a version of the Prius. The cost of the batteries is an issue at Toyota.

Paul Boskovitch, chief engineer of hybrid systems for auto supplier Ricardo Inc, believes lithium-ion batteries needed to power a vehicle now run at $US10,000 to $US15,000, which would make such a vehicle price prohibitive.

The plug-in Toyota is working on will have a range of 16km to 24km on electric only, and then operate like the Prius.

And while GM intends to mass produce the Volt from the outset, Toyota will start by leasing a few hundred plug-ins to fleet customers.

"I'm not surprised,'' Al-Hallaj said of Toyota's stance, noting it built 280,000 Priuses per year with those batteries.

"From a strategic point of view, they're hedging their bets.''

Al-Hallaj, however, says lithium-ion has potential to become the standard for hybrids and plug-ins. He also reminds that its price will drop as production increases.

"This will take time, but look how quickly computers went from costing thousands to a few hundred dollars,'' he said.

Ford Motor Co also is being cautious with lithium-ion technology, testing 20 plug-in Escape Hybrids before deciding whether to put it into wider production.

"A plug-in is a very expensive solution,'' Ford research manager Ted Miller said, adding that it takes more batteries than a non-plug-in.

Ford expects US hybrid sales to reach 500,000 this year - about 3% of the market - and that could triple to about 10% in a few years if petrol hits $US5 a gallon and stays there.

But Miller sees plug-in sales only in the thousands annually until 2015. - MCT