Honda Nixes PHEVs; Toyota Retreats on PHEVs; Nissan/Honda Tout EVs

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Three carmakers weigh in today on PHEVs with new positioning.

The big development is Honda’s latest response, echoed by Renault-Nissan: don’t ask us to build PHEVs; the engine is unnecessary: wait for us to build EVs. By the way, they’re only theoretically in favor of building EVs. (Note CEO Takeo Fukui’s careful comment Assuming that we can come up with a really high-performing battery that we are working on currently. in other words, trust us.)

At a time when battery cost is a big issue, this is a re-hash of the confident prognosis we got five years ago from almost everyone except Honda and Toyota: we won’t build hybrids because they suffer from the complexity of two systems. And it’s also strongly reminiscent many carmakers’ 1990s stance: don’t ask us to reduce the emissions on our cars, they’re history. Soon we’ll all be driving fuel cell cars — that’s where we’re spending all our research money.

The throw-away line from Fukui, I don’t think that would contribute to the global environment, to reduce [global warming gas] emissions, is simply inexcusable after so many engineering reports and high-profile studies.

Toyota’s comments represent a significant retreat from its position only a few months ago. Hybrid project general manager Yoshitaka Asakura says the company doesn’t believe that customers will want to plug in. (Where does that leave Honda and Nissan who are now claiming they favor EVs?!) US Toyota’s advanced technology manager Bill Reinert says that the company will have to charge the same price for its mass-produced PHEVs as after-market companies selling dozens of cars. and asks how much more people will pay for a PHEV: $1,000/$2,000/$3,000. As it happens, there’s only one way to get an answer to that question, but Toyota won’t do that.

Who will rescue us from these convoluted excuses and inconsistencies? Could it be GM’s Volt? Smaller companies that come in under the radar? A rapid expansion and reduction in prices of conversions?

Or maybe Volkswagen and Audi. stay tuned!

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL’S EVOLUTION

By the way, for years, it was hard to get the Wall Street Journal to pay attention to PHEVs and EVs. The break came in January 2006 with the launch of Plug-In Partners and the gradual evolution of automakers’ comments. Now we see three stories in one day, separately by automotive reporter Norihiko Shirouzu and Detroit bureau chief Joseph White, plus a somewhat overlapping story they wrote together.

We include most of all three reports below.

Honda Won’t Pursue Plug-in Hybrids

By NORIHIKO SHIROUZU

October 23, 2007 6:45 a.m.

Write to Norihiko Shirouzu

UTSUNOMIYA, Japan — Honda Motor Co. Chief Executive Takeo Fukui said so-called plug-in hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles offered too few environmental benefits for his company to pursue, and noted that an advanced hybrid vehicle called the Chevrolet Volt that General Motors Corp. is aiming to launch in a few years made little sense.

If Honda was able to come up with low-cost, safe and high-performing lithium-ion batteries, the Japanese executive hinted Honda would rather use them for an electric vehicle.

My feeling is that the kind of plug-in hybrid currently proposed by different auto makers can be best described as a battery electric vehicle equipped with an unnecessary fuel engine and fuel tank, Mr. Fukui told a group of journalists Tuesday at the company’s research and development center here, north of Tokyo. He said he was referring to plug-in hybrids such as the Chevy Volt.

Assuming that we can come up with a really high-performing battery that we are working on currently, I think a battery electric vehicle [that uses such battery technology] would actually be a plus from an environmental point of view.

Mr. Fukui’s cautious comments about an early deployment of lithium-ion batteries to realize a vehicle like the Volt followed a similarly guarded view outlined earlier this week by Toyota Motor Corp. (See related article.)

Japan’s No. 1 auto maker on Monday noted that it is taking a step-by-step approach to developing plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, and mapped out a more cautious strategy than rival GM for using lithium-ion batteries to power hybrid cars for longer distances on electricity alone.

GM, in a series of public announcements, has said it plans to bring an advanced hybrid vehicle called the Chevrolet Volt to the U.S. market by as early as 2010. The Volt concept shown by GM at the Detroit auto show earlier this year would use lithium-ion batteries to operate for as many as 40 miles on electricity alone. GM has promoted the Volt concept and its aggressive timetable as part of a broader effort to burnish its image as an auto industry green technology leader.

Toyota executives on Monday poured cold water on some of GM’s claims for its Volt technology, as did Honda’s Mr. Fukui Tuesday. The executives said Toyota is concerned that many customers may not accept a plug-in hybrid electric car that has to be recharged every day, despite the enthusiasm for the plug-in hybrid concept from environmental groups and from a relatively small group of electric-vehicle enthusiasts.

On Tuesday, Mr. Fukui stressed Honda could easily develop a plug-in hybrid within two years. But I don’t think that would contribute to the global environment, to reduce [global warming gas] emissions, he said.

Lithium-ion batteries are commonly used now to power laptop computers and other small consumer appliances. But overheating lithium-ion laptop batteries have been blamed recently for a small number of fires. Auto industry executives have expressed concern about the tendency of lithium-ion batteries to overheat, and GM has said it is reviewing a number of different lithium-ion technologies before settling on batteries for the Volt.

Toyota’s Cautious Green Strategy

Prius Maker Takes Tentative Stance On New Fuel-Sipping Technologies

By JOSEPH B. WHITE

October 23, 2007; Page A12

Toyota City, Japan

Toyota Motor Corp. outlined a more cautious strategy than General Motors Corp. for a new generation of fuel-efficient cars, signaling the differing approaches the world’s auto makers are taking to adjust to long-term concerns over oil supplies and climate change.

BOX TEXT:

Different Strategies: Toyota, which enjoys a cleaner image thanks to its Prius hybrid, is taking a more cautious approach than rival GM on the next generation of fuel-efficient vehicles.

Toyota’s Thinking: The car maker questions whether current technology can deliver affordable cars that offer significantly better fuel efficiency.

The Threat: A resurgent GM, which is challenging Toyota’s effort to become the world’s No. 1 auto maker (left), hopes to capture more of the market for fuel-efficient vehicles.

The Japanese auto giant also ceded a bit of ground to its Detroit rival in its effort to become the world’s biggest auto maker. Toyota said its global sales in the July-September period rose 4% from a year earlier to 2.34 million vehicles. GM, for decades the No. 1 auto maker by output, sold 2.39 million vehicles during the same period.

For the first nine months of the year, GM sold 7.06 million vehicles, versus Toyota’s 7.05 million.

Toyota has taken a leading role in the auto industry with surging global sales growth and leading market position for more-fuel-efficient gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Prius. But GM, with its increasing emphasis on developing markets and its ambitious efforts around electric vehicles, is making an effort to keep its historical role as industry leader.

GM has said it plans to bring an advanced hybrid vehicle called the Chevrolet Volt to the U.S. market by 2010. The Volt would use lithium-ion batteries to operate for as many as 40 miles on electricity alone. GM has promoted the Volt concept and its aggressive timetable as part of a broader effort to burnish its image as a green-technology leader.

GM executives have expressed frustration that Toyota, through the Prius, has overshadowed GM and diverted attention from Toyota’s substantial sales of sport-utility vehicles and pickups that in many cases have lower mileage ratings than competing GM models.

Toyota executives are mapping a far more conservative public strategy than GM regarding lithium-ion batteries and plug-in hybrids. Executives involved in Toyota’s advanced-vehicle strategy yesterday made no apologies for doing so and poured cold water on some of GM’s claims for its Volt technology.

We have to expand the market for existing hybrid systems that we have now, said Yoshitaka Asakura, project general manager in Toyota’s hybrid-vehicle system-engineering division.

Mr. Asakura said Toyota is concerned customers might not accept a plug-in hybrid electric car that has to be recharged every day, despite enthusiasm from environmental groups and electric-vehicle enthusiasts.

Bill Reinert, national manager for the advanced-technologies group at Toyota’s U.S. sales arm, said adapting a hybrid vehicle so it can run for 20 miles on electricity alone could cost about $10,000 with current technology. We are aware there is some market at that cost level, Mr. Reinert said. But Toyota wants to understand at what price level it could sell the most vehicles. Referring to a price more than that of the Prius, which starts at $20,950, he said, Where is the fat spot in the market?

Is it $1,500? Is it $2,000? Is it $3,000?

Toyota plans to ship to two California universities a small number of Prius cars modified to work as plug-in hybrids using nickel-metal-hydride batteries. Those vehicles will be evaluated starting this fall.

But Mr. Asakura and Yoshihiko Masuda, managing officer overseeing new-engine development and fuel-cell system engineering, declined to say when Toyota might offer plug-in hybrids for sale to consumers. They also wouldn’t offer a timetable for producing hybrids using lithium-ion batteries.

Lithium-ion batteries are commonly used now to power laptop computers and other small consumer appliances. But overheating lithium-ion laptop batteries have been blamed recently for a small number of fires. Auto-industry executives have expressed concern about the tendency of lithium-ion batteries to overheat.

Step by step, we will take the needed time to assure that lithium-ion battery technology can meet Toyota’s reliability standards, Mr. Masuda said.

GM has said it is confident in the concept of the Volt and is engineering the car while it evaluates competing lithium-ion batteries. The auto maker has told the United Auto Workers union it plans to build the Volt at its Hamtramck, Mich. assembly plant starting in 2010.

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Toyota’s Mr. Asakura expressed skepticism about the concept of a plug-in hybrid car that would run only on battery power for 40 miles, the idea central to the Chevrolet Volt concept. Batteries powerful enough to achieve that would fill up the trunk of a car, he said.

Toyota is pursuing a different concept, he said. It is looking at using batteries to power the car on electricity for short bursts, alternating with power from the gasoline engine. He said Toyota believes plug-in hybrids could operate in electric-only mode for about 10 to 20 miles.

Auto Giants Revisit Electric Cars

Debates in Tokyo Highlight Dilemma; Leaping Past Hybrids

By JOSEPH B. WHITE in Tokyo and NORIHIKO SHIROUZU in Utsunomiya, Japan


October 23, 2007 4:21 p.m.

Worried that urban congestion and fears about climate change could provoke a backlash against petroleum-fueled cars, big auto makers are revving up efforts to electrify automobiles.

In the process, usually circumspect auto-industry leaders are taking shots at each others’ technology strategies in a style more familiar to Silicon Valley than Detroit or Toyota City.

The argument surfacing among auto-industry leaders gathering for the Tokyo Motor Show this week is over whether it is time to skip past partial electrification of cars — represented by gasoline-electric hybrids such as the Toyota Prius — and push instead to revive the ideal of all-electric cars that the industry largely abandoned earlier this decade.

On one side of the debate are Toyota Motor Corp. and General Motors Corp. Both have played down all-electric cars in favor of developing competing forms of gasoline-electric hybrids, though they disagree on the best technology and how quickly it can be implemented.

On the other side are two allied car makers, France’s Renault SA and Japan’s Nissan Motor Co. as well as Honda Motor Co. The three have long expressed skepticism about the economic wisdom of hybrids and now are talking up all-electric cars.

Renault-Nissan Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn and Honda President and CEO Takeo Fukui, in separate interviews Tuesday, argued that all-electric vehicles make more sense from environmental, political and economic points of view than hybrids, provided there are advances in making lithium-ion-battery technology safer and more reliable.

None of the major auto makers is proposing to abandon internal-combustion or diesel engines for mass-market vehicles any time soon. But the industry leaders are worried regulators in the U.S. and Europe, under pressure to respond to climate change and address climbing oil prices, will force car makers to dramatically decrease the petroleum consumption of new vehicles. At the same time, a growing number of big cities are moving to institute curbs on automobile use in congested urban centers.

Still, the differences among the auto makers suggest competing technologies will jostle for prominence.

In an interview in Tokyo Tuesday, Mr. Ghosn said the allied French and Japanese companies he leads are working together to field significant numbers of all-electric vehicles as early as 2012, in the belief that gasoline-electric hybrids won’t satisfy carbon-conscious regulators in key markets. (See related article.1)

We think in cities — Paris and London — we think cars will be forbidden unless they are zero-emission vehicles, Mr. Ghosn said. He said Renault-Nissan’s plans reflect a judgment that lithium-ion-battery technology will soon be … enough to power purpose-built electric cars in city driving.

Mr. Ghosn said that in Europe, 15% of drivers rarely leave the city and would be the target market for all-electric cars. He stressed that Renault and Nissan don’t plan to convert their entire fleets to all-electric power. While one car Nissan is featuring at the show is an electric-car concept called the Pivo, the auto maker also is showing a production car called the GT-R with a nearly 500-horsepower engine and an acceleration time of zero to 60 miles per hour in less than four seconds.

Honda’s Mr. Fukui expressed skepticism about a type of vehicle known as plug-in hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles, saying they offer too few environmental benefits. Such vehicles, like GM’s proposed Chevrolet Volt, are recharged through an electrical outlet yet are still partially powered by gasoline. (See related article.2)

My feeling is that the kind of plug-in hybrid currently proposed by different auto makers can be best described as a battery electric vehicle equipped with an unnecessary fuel engine and fuel tank, Mr. Fukui said at the company’s research-and-development center north of Tokyo. He said he was referring to plug-in hybrids such as the Volt.

Assuming that we can come up with a really high-performing battery that we are working on currently, I think a battery electric vehicle would actually be a plus from an environmental point of view, he said.

Mr. Fukui said Honda could easily develop a plug-in hybrid within two years. But I don’t think that would contribute to the global environment, he said.

GM, Toyota and other auto makers largely scrapped efforts to commercialize all-electric cars some years ago after California delayed a mandate that car makers offer zero-emission vehicles. The demise of electric vehicles such as GM’s EV1 caused chagrin among environmentalists and electric-vehicle enthusiasts, but it otherwise barely caused a ripple in a U.S. auto market then dominated by sport-utility vehicles.

A renaissance of consumer all-electric vehicles could depend in large part on whether auto makers and battery makers can solve safety and cost problems with lithium-ion batteries. Such batteries commonly power laptop computers and other small consumer appliances, but auto-industry executives have expressed concern about the batteries’ tendency to overheat. Lithium-ion-battery fires have forced some high-profile recalls of laptops.

Citing concerns about lithium-ion-battery reliability, Toyota executives on Monday said they are taking a cautious step-by-step approach to developing plug-in hybrid electric vehicles using lithium-ion technology. Plug-in hybrids store electric energy from the power grid to run more often in all-electric mode than a Toyota Prius.

GM has heavily promoted the idea that its Chevrolet Volt concept could use lithium-ion batteries to operate for as far as about 60 kilometers on electricity alone. But the auto maker has qualified its claims by saying that actual production of the Volt depends on advances in the safety, reliability and cost of lithium-ion-battery technology.

Toyota executives Monday said they are concerned that many customers may not accept a plug-in hybrid electric car that has to be recharged every day. [snip]

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